Five Reasons Why Climate Change and Toxic Chemicals are Connected

HBN | December 04, 2019 | Newsletter

If we say climate change, what is the first thing that pops into your head? It’s probably not the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment. Some people can probably name a chemical that contributes to climate change, whether that is carbon dioxide or methane. But what about other chemicals that you are not as familiar with? In the building materials world, these may include fluorinated blowing agents used in some foam insulation. The agents either have high global warming potential (GWP) or use chemicals in their production that have high GWP.1 Another example is the release of the toxic, global warming, and ozone-depleting chemical carbon tetrachloride in the enormous supply chain of vinyl products, otherwise known as Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC).2 Purveyors of vinyl products, you may unwittingly be contributing to global warming! 

Yes, chemical contributions directly to climate change are important, but this interplay is not the only consequence of mixing chemicals and climate change. Climate change is altering how toxic chemicals impact our health and the health of the environment. What this means for us is that as the world warms, reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals becomes ever more important.   

Five Reasons Why Climate Change and Toxic Chemicals are Connected

  1. Warmer temperatures increase our exposure to toxic chemicals—temperatures affect how chemicals behave.3 Higher temperatures can allow certain chemicals to vaporize more easily and enter the air we breathe.4 Warmer temperatures on Earth can also encourage the breakdown of some chemicals into toxic byproducts.5
  2. Impacts of extreme weather events include concentrated releases of chemicals—catastrophic weather-related events such as hurricanes, fires, etc. can result in the release of toxic chemicals into the air when homes burn, or as factories in the Gulf region are damaged or destroyed.6 These events are becoming more and more frequent and will continue to expose people and the planet to highly concentrated chemical doses.
  3. Climate change can exacerbate the health impacts of air pollution—volatile organic compounds released by chemical products contribute to the production of smog, leading to poor air quality which can negatively impact the lungs or exacerbate respiratory diseases such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.7 Warmer temperatures amplify these impacts.8 As the largest source of air pollutants slowly transitions from transportation sources to chemical products, and as the earth warms, smart product choices will have even more impact on air quality.9 
  4. Toxic chemicals may hinder the body’s ability to adapt to climate change—in recent years, studies discovered that many toxic chemicals are endocrine disruptors.10 Animal studies have highlighted that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can alter metabolism and hinder animals’ ability to adapt to changing temperatures.11 While these findings were in animals, similar effects occur in humans as well, particularly in communities without access to heating or air conditioning. 
  5. Toxic chemicals increase communities’ vulnerability to climate change effects—toxic chemicals are an environmental justice issue. Ever heard of Cancer Alley? Cancer Alley is a predominantly African American community located in Southern Louisiana right next door to factories pumping out toxic chemicals every day.12 This 100 mile stretch of land is home to 25 percent of the nation’s petrochemical manufacturing and a large portion of its PVC supply chain.13 Aptly named, the cancer rate in this area is higher than the state and national cancer rate.14 Cancer Alley’s location right next to the Gulf Coast also increases its vulnerability to hurricanes and tropical storms. As climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, the impacts of toxic chemicals on this community also deepens.

Caring About Toxic Chemicals Can Help Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change—On You! 

While most toxic chemicals do not cause climate change, they do affect how climate change can impact you. These impacts compound as more chemicals are produced or utilized.15 In 1970, the U.S. produced 50 million tons of synthetic chemicals.16 In 1995, the number tripled to 150 million tons, and today, that number continues to increase.17

Very few of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the marketplace are fully tested for health hazards, and details on human exposure to these chemicals are limited.18 We are exposed to these chemicals every day, in varying quantities and mixtures. Over a lifetime, the small exposures add up. Predictions of health outcomes from long-term exposure are already fuzzy at best, but add on the component of climate change and the mystery deepens.19 While researchers continue to study climate change and chemicals to answer the questions we have, there are steps that we can take to help mitigate the negative impact of climate change on chemicals.

HBN’s Small Piece of the Pie — How We’re Keeping Consumers Safe 

We cannot remove all chemicals from our lives and many play important roles, but, we can follow the precautionary principle. If there is a less toxic chemical or product available that meets our requirements, we should use it. Here at HBN, our work is guided by the precautionary principle—otherwise known as ‘better to be safe than sorry.’ HBN provides advice on better products from a material health perspective though our Hazard Spectrums on HomeFree. Stepping up the spectrum to healthier products, helps lessen the chemicals of highest concern in our buildings and our bodies.

Toxic content can hinder some solutions to climate change such as circularity and the retrofit of buildings to increase energy efficiency. Hazardous content in the products of today limits their recyclability in the future. HBN’s Optimizing Recycling series offers insight into the common toxics in some key recycled feedstocks and ways to improve current products and processes for future recyclability.

We also encourage those working in energy efficiency to consider not only how to decrease energy use but how to do so using the least toxic materials possible. For example, HBN’s research conducted in collaboration with Energy Efficiency for All identified preferable insulation and air sealing materials to use in order to avoid chemicals of highest concern—both toxic chemicals and those with high global warming potential. Our recommendations help shift the market away from these chemicals of concern so that efforts at mitigating climate change can also improve human health.

Our Pharos Database provides resources for industry professionals to identify less toxic chemicals to use in building products, which helps decrease the number of toxic chemicals climate change can affect. It also provides information on which chemicals possess a high GWP. Information in Pharos helps shift the marketplace to less toxic chemicals and helps keep consumers safe. 

Why We Can and Must Do Better  

Between climate change and toxic chemicals, it could be easy to push toxic chemicals to the side as a someday problem and choose to tackle climate change first. But the truth is that the impacts of toxic chemicals are real and happening today and will only get worse in a warming world. These two issues are connected and influence each other’s outcomes. Climate change can have a big impact on the world, but caring about toxic chemicals can reduce the negative consequences that climate change will have on chemicals, and consequently on us. 

 

References

[1] Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are being phased out as blowing agents in plastic foam insulation due to regulatory action in the United States. Starting in January of 2020, they are no longer allowed in most spray foam insulation. Extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation manufacturers have until January of 2021 to phase out HFCs. The commonly used HFC in XPS, HFC-134a has a global warming potential 1,430 times that of carbon dioxide. A common replacement blowing agent for HFCs is a hydrofluoroolefin (HFO). While the HFO itself has a low GWP, it still uses high GWP chemicals in its production and may release these chemicals when it is made. See “Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials,” Healthy Building Network, September 2018, https://healthybuilding.net/reports/19-making-affordable-multifamily-housing-more-energy-efficient-a-guide-to-healthier-upgrade-materials.; “Substitutes in Polystyrene: Extruded Boardstock and Billet.” United States Environmental Protection Agency: Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP). Accessed Sept 16, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/snap/substitutes-polystyrene-extruded-boardstock-and-billet.; “Substitutes in Rigid Polyurethane: Spray.” United States Environmental Protection Agency: Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP). Accessed Sept 16, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/snap/substitutes-rigid-polyurethane-spray.
[2] Vallette, Jim. “Chlorine and Building Materials: A Global Inventory of Production Technologies, Markets, and Pollution - Phase 1: Africa, The Americas, and Europe.” Healthy Building Network, July 2018. https://s3.amazonaws.com/hbnweb.dev/uploads/files/wnxz/Chlorine%20%26%20Building%20Materials%20Phase%201%20-%20v2.pdf.
[3] Pamela D. Noyes et al., “The Toxicology of Climate Change: Environmental Contaminants in a Warming World,” Environment International 35, no. 6 (August 1, 2009): 971–86, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2009.02.006.
[4] Noyes et al.
[5] Pamela D. Noyes and Sean C. Lema, “Forecasting the Impacts of Chemical Pollution and Climate Change Interactions on the Health of Wildlife,” Current Zoology 61, no. 4 (August 1, 2015): 669–89, https://doi.org/10.1093/czoolo/61.4.669.
[6] Caroline C. Ummenhofer and Gerald A. Meehl, “Extreme Weather and Climate Events with Ecological Relevance: A Review,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 372, no. 1723 (June 19, 2017): 20160135, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0135.
[7] C. M. Zigler, C. Choirat, and F. Dominici, “Impact of National Ambient Air Quality Standards Nonattainment Designations on Particulate Pollution and Health.,” Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.) 29, no. 2 (March 2018): 165–74, https://doi.org/10.1097/EDE.0000000000000777.
[8] “Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air/volatile-organic-compounds-vocs.
[9] Brian C. McDonald et al., “Volatile Chemical Products Emerging as Largest Petrochemical Source of Urban Organic Emissions,” Science 359, no. 6377 (February 16, 2018): 760–64, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaq0524.
[10] Research Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, and Institute of Medicine, The Challenge: Chemicals in Today’s Society (National Academies Press (US), 2014), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK268889/.
[11] Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
[12] Wesley James, Chunrong Jia, and Satish Kedia, “Uneven Magnitude of Disparities in Cancer Risks from Air Toxics,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9, no. 12 (December 2012): 4365–85, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph9124365.
[13] James, Jia, and Kedia.; Vallette.
[14] James, Jia, and Kedia.
[15] Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
[16] Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
[17] Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
[18] Pamela D. Noyes and Sean C. Lema, “Forecasting the Impacts of Chemical Pollution and Climate Change Interactions on the Health of Wildlife,” Current Zoology 61, no. 4 (August 1, 2015): 669–89, https://doi.org/10.1093/czoolo/61.4.669.
[19] Noyes and Lema.