HBN Report: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection

Bill Walsh | December 12, 2013 | Materials

A new HBN Report, Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection, provides information on how we can, through the careful selection of building materials and furnishings, reduce and even avoid exposures to certain chemicals that can lead to the onset of asthma. This is the first report to cross-reference authoritative lists of chemicals identified as known or suspected asthmagens against ingredient lists of common building products. We did this using HBN's Pharos Project, a materials database that evaluates building products against chemical hazard lists.

HBN Researchers Jim Vallette and Sarah Lott identified twenty top-priority asthmagens in nine chemical groups that are used in building materials and have a high likelihood of occupant exposure. These asthmagens are found in foam insulation, paints, adhesives, floors and carpets, among many other interior materials.

Additionally, we identified a dozen chemicals commonly used in building products that can impact the development of children's lungs at their earliest ages and lead to the onset of asthma. We consider eight of these chemicals to be top priorities for consideration in asthma prevention strategies. These eight chemicals belong to a class of chemicals known as phthalates. Certain phthalates have been banned in many consumer products intended for use by children due to their suspected toxicity, but remain widely used in soft vinyl building products and furnishings.

We did this research because according to the Centers for Disease Control asthma rates in the United States are rising despite the proliferation of asthma control strategies, including indoor air quality programs. The causes of asthma are complex and not well understood. As asthma affects more people, it becomes increasingly clear that new strategies need to be considered, focusing on the prevention of asthma onset.

Our study demonstrates that in some cases it is possible to select for products that are free of or have lower concentrations of asthmagens. For example, it is possible to avoid phthalate exposure by selecting non-vinyl alternatives, and it is possible to avoid other asthmagens in insulation through careful evaluation and selection of insulation options. Chemical asthmagen avoidance should be incorporated into strategies and research aimed at addressing asthma in vulnerable populations, such as children and residents of low-income housing. Current certification standards for low-emitting building products need to be modified in order to effectively detect the presence and emissions of asthmagens in products and during screening.

In some cases there are presently few alternatives to products that contain asthmagens, such as adhesives and coatings. In the short term, additional care should be taken to reduce exposure to workers and building occupants when these products are used. In the longer term, we believe the growing market demand for asthma-friendly products will provide incentives for increased research to understand the potential contributions of chemicals in building materials to the rising epidemic of asthma, and to create safer alternatives to asthmagens.

The single most important ingredient in a chemical asthmagen avoidance strategy is product ingredient disclosure. Unless we know what chemicals are in our buildings and the building products we specify, we cannot take steps to research them intelligently, regulate them effectively, avoid them as a matter of precaution, or create market incentives to transition away from them. We offer this report, and a new filter for priority asthmagens in HBN's Pharos Project, as first steps forward towards these important goals.

For more in-depth information on this topic please download the full report and see supporting statements from experts in public health and affordable housing, recent media coverage, and researcher Sarah Lott's recent blog.