Indoor Air Quality


The past 50 years have seen rapid development of new building materials, furnishings, and consumer products and a corresponding explosion in new chemicals in the built environment. While exposure levels are largely undocumented, they are likely to have increased as a wider variety of chemicals came into use, people began spending more time indoors, and air exchange rates decreased to improve energy efficiency.

Conventional building products contain carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors, developmental toxicants, neurotoxins, respiratory irritants, and immune system sensitizers, which are increasingly found in human breast milk and tissue samples. Of the 80,000 chemicals that the EPA has listed, only 250 chemicals have been subjected to mandatory hazard testing and only nine classes (though some say only five) of chemicals have been restricted. Today’s indoor air environments are now at least 5 times more polluted than outdoors and indoor electromagnetic pollution is worse than ever.

As a result of weak regulatory requirements for chemical safety testing, only limited toxicity data are available for these chemicals. Over the past 15 years, some chemical classes commonly used in building materials, furnishings, and consumer products have been shown to be endocrine disrupting chemicals—that is they interfere with the action of endogenous hormones. These include PCBs, used in electrical equipment, caulking, paints and surface coatings; chlorinated and brominated flame retardants, used in electronics, furniture, and textiles; pesticides, used to control insects, weeds, and other pests in agriculture, lawn maintenance, and the built environment; phthalates, used in vinyl, plastics, fragrances, and other products; alkylphenols, used in detergents, pesticide formulations, and polystyrene plastics; and parabens, used to preserve products like lotions and sunscreens.



Synthetic, chemical-based building materials emit gasses that are harmful to the respiratory health of manufacturers, installers and building occupants.

These chemicals are problematic for the health of workers who manufacture and install these building materials. The health of building occupants is also at risk as they spend time in tightly sealed buildings while toxins release into the indoor air. Then if there is a fire- toxic smoke.


Volatile Organic Chemicals -VOC’s

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDC’s)

A comprehensive study by the World Health Organization / United Nations Environment Program identifies building materials as a major source of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). The report documents that incidences of diseases associated with endocrine disruption, such as autism, childhood asthma, testicular cancer, preterm births, low birth weight and pediatric brain cancer, are on the rise, which coincides with a rise in the production and use of endocrine disrupting chemicals such as pthlalates* and brominated flame retardants**

(*from low levels in the 1940s to 3.5 million metric tons/year today)

**whose global production doubled in 10 years to 410,000 tons in 2008).[ 2]

The rise of health impacts associated with endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs) includes an increase in autism, from under 5:10,000 in 1970 to 1:110 in 2007, a doubling of U.S. childhood asthma in 20 years, to 9.4% in 2010 and a 400% rise in testicular cancer in Baltic countries since 1967.  Preterm births, low birth weight and pediatric brain cancer are also on the rise.

Researchers found exposure to PVC flooring and/or PVC wall covering material was correlated with airway symptoms in children… and an association between the concentration of DEHP (pthalates) in indoor dust and asthma and wheezing in children.”[4]

State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012

The WHO/UNEP report explicitly calls for disclosure.

“Many sources of EDCs are not known because of a lack of chemical constituent declarations in products, materials and goods. We need to know where the exposures are coming from.”

The US Green Building Council has responded to this need in their LEED version 4, with a proposed Material and Resources (MR) Credit whereby projects must have a some official form of chemical content declaration for 20% of the materials used on a project.


In its 2011 Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. The World Health Organization classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen five years earlier in 2006.

Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC) used in the binders of many common building products, including plywood, particleboard, and fiberglass insulation. The substance offgases into the indoor environment and can cause other health problems in addition to cancer, such as headaches, asthma, and depression.

Airborne formaldehyde acts as an irritant to upper and lower respiratory tract. Depending upon the level and length of exposure, symptoms may range from burning or tingling sensations in eyes, nose, and throat to chest tightness and wheezing, even skin rash and severe allergic reactions. Acute, severe reactions to formaldehyde vapor may be associated with hypersensitivity.

It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population, including asthmatics, may have hyper reactive airways, which may make them more susceptible to formaldehyde’s effects.

The findings of a multiple building study of homes in Victoria, Australia showed a 60% reduction in the prevalence of asthma and a 63% reduction in the prevalence of allergies among children whose homes contained formaldehyde-free composite wood products, as compared to those exposed to formaldehyde from furnishings and products in their home.

The first cost increase of $615 per household for product substitution resulted in annual health savings of $1108 per year.

(Garrett et al 1996, Vivian Loft)


The National Toxicology Program NTP classified styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in 2011. A VOC used in the manufacture of expanded and extruded polystyrene insulation, as well as some carpets, carpet backings, and carpet adhesives, styrene is already known to cause other acute health issues (among them memory deficits, vertigo, and lethargy) when it offgases into the indoor environment.


Fire Retardant

Flame retardants are pervasive in building products, affect air quality and it’s dubious whether they perform their said intention. The toxic smoke from modern homes is what kills most people

Smoke from burning fire retardants contain elevated amounts of carbon monoxide as well as dioxins and furans, toxic chemicals that can cause immune disorders, liver problems, skin lesions and certain types of cancer. Flame retardants pose health risks even if they aren’t burning.


Halogenated Flame Retardants (HFRs) are used in plastics and foam insulation, (as well as carpet backing, epoxy and resins, kitchen appliances, housing paints, and electrical devices). Highly persistent and bio-accumulative, these chemicals are similar to DDT and other banned pesticides, and associated with developmental damage to the brain, thyroid and reproductive systems, as well as endocrine disruption and cancer.


Improving Health through Indoor Air Quality 

Buildings with unnatural light, high emf, poor temp control, poor general air quality

Studies have shown that poor indoor air quality in buildings can decrease productivity in addition to causing visitors to express dissatisfaction.

The linear relationship between the percentage dissatisfied with indoor air quality and the measured decrease in performance is approximately 20% to 70%.

Productivity losses from building-related health problems are equivalent to more than 10 days per employee per year. This may result from absence of work, but is more often due to reduced effectiveness on the job.

Treatment for illnesses and health conditions influenced by indoor environment cost employers a minimum of $750 per employee a year. This accounts for approximately 14% of all annual health insurance expenditures.


Best Practices – Healthy Buildings 

We have an opportunity to move towards natural, healthy materials that are reusable or at the very least benign at end of life. This will reduce landfill volume and toxicity issues while creating healthier buildings.

Maximize benefits of views, natural light, natural textures, innovations in passive ventilation

Increased outdoor ventilation rates and natural, ventilation significantly reduces respiratory illness, flu’s and absenteeism by 9-20%

Access to operable windows reduces energy use, absenteeism, SBS symptoms, and improves productivity and test scores.

Material selection is critical in relation to outgassing, toxicity in fires, radon, cancer causing fibers and mold, impacting respiratory and digestive systems, eyes and skin

It is usually more energy-efficient to eliminate sources of pollution than increase outdoor air supply rates.

The industry is seeing a fast increase in awareness and lobbying by environmental and health conscious consumers and designers. New standards and points programs are emerging. The principal and lifecycle based Living Building Challenge is addressing life cycle impacts regarding health, ecology and resilience.

In his book The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council Jason McLennon writes extensively on productivity and well being and green buildings: Several schools in the US have been tracking changes in attendance, grades, and even dental records of students who have moved from a conventional school to a school that used daylighting as the primary ambient light source. Students in a North Carolina school were shown to improve grade scores dramatically – up to fifteen percent as they were relocated to their new daylight school, with attendance and dental records also improving dramatically.

Our ability to learn is greatly affected by environmental conditions, the ability to see our work, minimization of auditory distractions and access to fresh air to keep us alert and healthy. Dental health relies on our ability to metabolize vitamin E, which is only possible in the presence of UV found in daylight. With so many children spending almost all of their time indoors, dental health as well as the connection to nature is suffering.

(McLennan, 2004: p158)

Employees who sit next to windows are more productive and exhibit consistently fewer symptoms of “sick building syndrome” than other workers; at one organization, absenteeism quadrupled after a move from a building with natural ventilation to one with sealed windows and central air. Researchers in Japan took such research a step further, comparing brain wave activity between people looking at greenery and those who viewed a concrete fence; green produced relaxed brain waves; the concrete stimulated stress.




Some companies are rising to meet the demand for healthier and safe solutions

Two of the world’s leading manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals, Louisiana-based Albemarle Corp. and Israel-based ICL Industrial Products, are in the process of shutting down production of the flame retardant, chlorinated tris, and related chemicals. ICL said it will stop selling chlorinated tris for use in furniture and children’s products by January 1st, and stop making it altogether by the end of 2015.

The announcements by Albemarle and ICL come after chemical manufacturers in October 2011 failed to block California from officially listing the flame retardant as a carcinogen and moving to require warnings on products that could expose people to unsafe levels.

In a statement, ICL said its decision reflected the company’s “commitment to market leadership, innovation and responsiveness to market conditions and customer needs.”

Other major health organizations already had concluded that the chemical is a cancer risk, including the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute and the National Research Council.


Governments are increasingly responding to the health risk through legislation

In 2010 the European Union announced that under the terms of its new chemicals policy known as REACH, Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) will be banned from use within the next three to five years unless an authorization has been granted to individual companies for their use.


California recently moved to undo a 38-year-old flammability law that led to the inclusion of retardant chemicals in products nationwide, with a possibility of having retardant-free products on the market as early as summer 2014.


Biophilic Design is an emerging movement recognizing the inherent value of nature’s incorporation into building design. The inclusion of life-like processes in design such as natural forms, warm materials, abundant natural light and water create a beneficial effect on building occupants. Increasing studies are showing the benefits of connecting people and nature within buildings, including hospitals with improved patient heal times, schools where children earn higher test scores, offices with increased worker productivity and reduced overturn and absenteeism.

Restorative Environmental Design – Professor emeritus at Yale University, Stephen R. Kellert, describes the amalgamation of low-impact design, exemplified in LEED, with biophilic design principles as a new standard, Restorative Environmental Design, a means for achieving true and lasting sustainability.

In an effort to codify Restorative Environmental Design, Kellert developed a set of biophilic standards based on six elements and 75 attributes, calling it “a pattern language to help people who want a checklist.”

Six elements of biophilic design

1. Environmental features. Characteristics and features of the natural environment such as sunlight, fresh air, plants, animals, water, soils, landscapes, natural colors, and natural materials such as wood and stone.

2. Natural shapes and forms. The simulation and mimicking of shapes and forms found in nature.

3. Natural patterns and processes. Functions, structures, and principles characteristic of the natural world, especially those that have been instrumental in human evolution and development

4. Light and space. Spatial and lighting features that evoke the sense of being in a natural setting.

5. Place-based relationships. Connections between buildings and the distinctive geographical, ecological, and cultural characteristics of particular places and localities.

6. Evolved human relationships to nature. Basic inborn inclinations to affiliate with nature such as the feeling of being in a coherent and legible environment, the sense of prospect and refuge, the simulation of living growth and development, and evoking various biophilic values.

Health Statistics show a need for intervention- Studies indicate multiple causes for decline in health. Evidence collected for commercial spaces strongly indicates health impacts through healthier buildings and biophilic design.

More Trends

Growing market awareness and receptivity

Growing demand for solutions to meet increasing accountability and ecological standards

Significant momentum for change through multiple programs demanding transparency, ecological and healthy ingredients

-LEED and new changes to chemicals allowed

– Declare

– Programs to protect groundwater etc?

– EPA’s green chemistry related programs to reduce toxins in building materials

Source: (excellent blog on the topic of the nine (or five) EPA regulated toxic chemicals.