Investing in a Healthier Future

HBN | May 2020 | Newsletter

As of May 17, 2020, globally we have 4.8 million known cases of COVID-19 and more than 316,000 people have died. In just a few months, we have become aware that our individual and collective health is far more fragile than we thought. While we focus on the immediate crises of attending to sick and dying loved ones, teaching children to succeed in tele-school and finding ways to safely operate essential parts of the economy, scientists and organizations like HBN are making headway in key public health issues. Of paramount importance is answering the question: What underlying causes have made people and societies so vulnerable to this virus?

“One thing we have learned is that while COVID-19 has affected a broad range of people across continents, individuals who are most adversely impacted have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, cancer, asthma, heart disease and other ailments,” said Gina Ciganik, CEO of HBN. “And, we know from public health research that these medical conditions are often linked to toxic chemical exposures.”

Further, within our societies specific communities are most at risk, particularly essential workers, such as nurses, grocery store clerks, meat packers and cleaning crews whose work may require a high level of personal contact with the public, or involve conditions that promote easy transmission of the virus. Also, people of color, marginalized communities and low-wage earners are disproportionately affected. Many live in areas with higher levels of air pollution, which puts their respiratory systems at greater risk; low-wage earners often work in high exposure jobs and cannot afford highly nutritious food or vitamins; and many lack sufficient medical insurance to get the care they need once they are sick with COVID-19.

Healthy Building Network is involved in this crisis on multiple levels from advising on safe, effective cleaning solutions to offering expert advice on the impacts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that weaken our immune systems. Our tools, research reports and other resources provide sound guidance on greener chemistry and selecting safer products that decrease hazardous chemical exposures. To further expand awareness during this pandemic here are three insightful articles that address these big picture areas of concern, as well as observations from several of our leading supporters.

How Toxic Chemicals Contribute to COVID-19 Deaths
Frederick S. vom Saal, Ph.D., Curators' Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Dr. Aly Cohen, MD, FACR, Founder & Medical Director at Integrative Rheumatology Associates, PC and Founder & Medical Director at

Frederick vom Saal and Aly Cohen correlate the increased use of toxic chemicals in everyday life with the steady rise of chronic disease in the United States. “Chronic diseases have been steadily increasing over the past 50 years, associated with the dramatic increase in chemical production for use in plastics, construction materials, pesticides, personal care products, furniture, cookware, food packaging, textiles and many other products that are steadily infiltrating every aspect of human life.”

The long-term solution to a resilient, healthy population is to prevent disease. Key strategies include: avoiding the use of chemicals of concern, advancing green chemistry innovations, and committing to circular economy principles. We can and must reverse the historic growth of this chronic disease trend, heal our bodies, and build resilience against viruses like COVID-19. 

“The COVID-19 crisis gives us an important opportunity to reset – we can’t return to ‘business as usual.’ Perkins and Will knows that green chemistry works – this needs to become everyone’s ‘new normal.’” Mary Dickinson, Associate Principal, Perkins and Will Architecture

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals weaken us in our COVID-19 battle
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., retired director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
Jerrold Heindel, Ph.D., former Scientific Program Administrator at NIEHS

“We are an unhealthy nation — and many of our elevated disease rates are linked to environmental chemicals.” Research shows that chronic diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and Crohn's disease all have been shown to have links to exposure to toxic chemicals. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 7 percent of Americans (23.5 million people) suffer from one or more autoimmune diseases and 25 million people have asthma. The challenge of managing these conditions in “normal” times is enormous; during times of crisis, it can quickly turn to life threatening. Our immune systems have been compromised, and yet, a healthy immune system is exactly what we need to fight off COVID-19.

When a Virus Exposes Environmental Justice
Jeff Turrentine, Culture & Politics columnist at Natural Resources Defense Council's on Earth

This article highlights a map of New York City that was recently released by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It breaks down confirmed cases by ZIP code. Turrentine states “the results are shockingly clear: The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting low-income neighborhoods, which in New York also tend to be communities of color.” Among various Social Determinants of Health and disproportionate exposures to chemicals of concern that make lower income communities more susceptible to disease, Turrentine emphasizes the connection between health and zip codes by sharing a startling new report from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health showing a correlation between the virus’s deadliness and long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, otherwise known as air pollution. According to the report, COVID-19 mortality rates in areas with an increased level of air pollution are 15 percent higher than in areas with an even slightly lower level of that same pollution.

COVID-19 has proved to be tragically destructive, killing hundreds of thousands of people in just a few months. But our vulnerability should not have come as such a surprise. In 1962, in her seminal book, Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson warned us of an invisible epidemic weakening our bodies and the environment caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

HBN has been steadily engaging industry partners, informing the trades of safer choices, and working to protect our bodies and the environment for two decades. It’s been a tough battle changing minds and business practices, but now more than ever is the time to realize a healthier population will not only help us better resist viruses and other crises, it will improve our quality of life and reduce the soaring healthcare costs of managing chronic disease.

"COVID-19 reminds us of the accumulated liabilities that result from short-sighted, extractive, even toxifying decisions and choices we’ve made in designing the built environment, as compared to the incalculable asset of resilience that results when we honor our deeply interconnected relationship to our biosphere, earth. Now is our opportunity to redefine our relationship with our place — sustainably, peaceably, and preferably, with grace.” – Dave Johnson, Principal, SERA Architects

Thank you to Our Partners and Friends!

During this COVID-19 crisis, and for the long-range goal of health-equity and resilience, we need everyone’s insight and contributions — intellectual and fiscal. HBN is grateful to have partners and friends who invest in our work because you believe it is the path towards a healthier future. You not only support HBN, you are leaders in your own right, committed to decreasing the use of and exposure to toxic chemicals.

The following individuals and corporations are part of our Leadership Circle — our giving society that sustains HBN and allows us to develop resources that help others know better and do better. We celebrate your commitment to ensure that all people and the planet thrive.

TrailBlazers ($15,000+): Google, Perkins & Will, The Durst Organization, The Fine Fund

Innovators ($5,000-$14,999): Enterprise Community Partners, Jonathan Rose Companies, Bill Hayward of Hayward Score, Hull Family Foundation, Bonda Family Foundation, Richard H. Goldman Family Foundation

Changemakers: ($1,000-$4,999): Ben & Jerry’s, SERA Architects, Steven Winter Associates, Smith Group, Barbara and Hilton Tudhope, Dave Rapaport and Jeanne Kirby, Teresa and Dan McGrath, The Murali Family, Robin Guenther, George Salah, Linda Sorrento, Gina and Ted Ciganik, Bill Walsh, Thomas J. Reinhart Foundation on behalf of Jules Elkins, Anonymous

If you appreciate the leading-edge research and educational tools that we provide, please, join our Leadership Circle, or give at any level meaningful to you. Together, a healthy future is possible.