Full Disclosure Required: a Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection.

Sarah Lott | December 11, 2013 | Newsletter

Nearly 26 million people in the United States are affected by chronic asthma, including over eight million children. This number has been on the rise since at least 1980, despite the abundance of programs to reduce outdoor and indoor air pollutants, like tobacco smoke and smog, which have long been linked to asthma.

People spend the vast majority of their time indoors, surrounded by building materials. Recent reports – such as a 2012 Perkins +Will / National Institutes of Health collaboration – have established that building materials contain asthma-causing chemicals. But generally, the walls and floors and ceilings that surround us most of our lives are under-explored potential contributors to the asthma epidemic.

Building materials contain chemicals, known as asthmagens, that not only trigger the symptoms of asthma, but actually cause the development of asthma disease.  Earlier this year, the Healthy Building Network (HBN) took an in-depth look at how pervasive asthmagens are in interior building materials, and which of these ingredients are most common and available for exposure to building occupants.   We present our findings and recommendations in a new report, Full Disclosure Required: a Strategy to Prevent Asthma through Building Product Selection.  Our paper benefitted from extensive review from outside childrens’ health, asthma, and indoor air quality experts from government and public health organizations, including the California Department of Public Health, Science and Environmental Health Network, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and the Collaborative on Health and the Environment.

We released the report today at a press briefing with Cecil Corbin Mark of WEACT for Environmental Justice, Harlem; Dr. Ted Schettler, Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network, Dr. Matthew Perzanowski from Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, and Lisa Britton, founder and president of Alpar Architectural Products LLC.

Findings

Full Disclosure Required identifies a total of 50 chemicals associated with asthma in interior building products, including 12 with emerging evidence of impacts from early life exposures. Of these, we identified 20 top-priority asthmagens (chemicals that cause the onset of asthma disease) widely used in building materials that have a high likelihood of occupant exposure.

Building occupants may be exposed to these chemicals through inhalation, dermal contact, and/or ingestion of dust created from the use and wear of the product:

  • Acid anhydrides (two types).  Used in alkyd and epoxy resins used to make coatings and rubber flooring.
  • Acrylates (four types). Used in paints, lacquers, varnishes, insulation binders, fluid applied floors, flooring finishes and countertops.
  • Ammonium hydroxide. Used in chalkboard paints and acrylic adhesives.
  • Bisphenol A Diglycidyl Ether (BADGE). Key ingredient of epoxy adhesives and coatings.
  • Ethanolamines (three types). Used in spray polyurethane foam, adhesives, insulation binders and high performance coatings.
  • Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde-based resins are used in a wide range of building materials and components.
  • Isocyanates (six types).  Key ingredient of polyurethane systems, including insulation, binders, carpet backing and foam cushions.
  • Polyfunctional aziridine.  Cross-linking agent in wet applied products such as finishes and paints
  • Styrene.  Monomer in Styrene Butadiene Rubber (SBR) flooring and carpet backing.  Also found in polystyrene insulation and high performance coatings.

In addition to these asthmagens, we examined emerging evidence that exposure to some other chemicals before and after birth contribute to the onset of asthma disease by disrupting the development of lungs.  Of greatest concern: eight chemicals from a group of plasticizers, called phthalates, that are commonly used in vinyl (PVC) floors, lacquers, flooring finishes, and adhesives. Phthalates migrate from building materials into people’s bodies. The time is now to prevent these exposures, by avoiding the use of these products.  

More evidence is emerging that other common ingredients of building products and other consumer goods – especially certain antimicrobials and stain repellants – are causing early life impacts that can contribute to the onset of asthma.  These chemicals should be prioritized for further research and possible inclusion in asthma prevention strategies.

We also found that of the fifty chemicals that we discuss in the report, only three are included in both of the two leading IAQ protocols. 

Recommendations

The evidence is clear.  Asthma rates continue to rise.  Asthmagens are pervasive in building materials and people are routinely exposed to these chemicals.  We need new strategies to prevent exposure to chemicals that cause asthma.  Full Disclosure Required outlines corrective courses of action.

  1. Identify chemicals of concern through product transparency.  Knowing what is in building products is an essential component of any asthma-prevention strategy.  Manufacturers should fully disclose all product ingredients so consumers can make informed purchasing decisions.  Building owners, landlords, interior designers and architects can now use HBN’s Pharos Building Product Library to identify products that do not contain top priority asthmagens.  Coincident with this report, HBN has expanded its coverage of asthmagens in Pharos and added an asthmagen filter to the Pharos BPL that allows users to identify and select products that do not contain the 28 top-priority substances.
  2. Identify pathways for exposure and prevention. Environmental, public health, public housing, and other agencies should intensify efforts to identify and prevent avoidable exposures to asthmagens in homes, schools, hospitals and public spaces.  Manufacturers should work with green chemistry experts to identify and develop suitable alternatives to asthmagens in building products.
  3. Develop IAQ and green building protocols to address asthma. We found that of the fifty chemicals that we discuss in the report, only three are included in both of the two leading IAQ protocols.  The IAQ standards development community should create testing protocols for the presence and emissions of asthmagens in products.  This will require developing and incorporating consensus standards for laboratory measurement of SVOCs and non-volatiles that can be incorporated into building IAQ standards. Pending the creation of these standards, green building programs, including the US Green Building Council’s LEED standard, should develop incentives to avoid priority asthmagen content.

Full Disclosure Required provides a frame of reference for further action by the public health and green building communities.  Together, we can identify healthy alternatives to building products that expose people to chemicals that cause asthma.

HBN has also written a general overview about this topic here.