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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Toxins in the Built Environment

Posted on May 31, 2013

Hidden Dangers All Around Us

By Ellen Leroy-Reed, LEED AP BD+C

Look around you. 

Chances are, you are sitting in an office chair that is made of various materials – leather, plastic, cloth, foam.  There may be carpet on the floor, paint or covering on the walls, ceiling tiles above you, and various plastic pipes behind the gypsum drywall.

You are potentially sitting in a room filled with harmful toxins.  Plastics such as PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate), PEX (Polyethylene Cross-linked), and others comprise many of the materials used in making furniture, constructing buildings and designing interiors.  Many building materials contain VOC’s or Volatile Organic Compounds that become a gas at normal room temperatures and are responsible for that “new car smell” we detect in new buildings and vehicles.  Very often, these materials continue to emit VOC’s long after we stop detecting the odor.  So, we continue to inhale these VOC’s unbeknownst to us.

What’s the problem?

VOC’s and some plastics emit chemicals that are incredibly harmful to the body.  VOC’s have been associated with chronic health effects such as damage to the liver, kidney, and nervous system as well as increased cancer risk.  The effects of VOC’s such as formaldehyle have raised such high levels of concern that strict limitations have been placed on formaldehylde emissions internationally.  It comes as a surprise to many that formaldehyle is often found in composite woods such as plywood and in the pressed wood we find in furniture and cabinetry.  Shockingly, VOC’s are commonly found in carpet, resilient flooring, fabrics, furniture, wall covering, ceiling tiles, insulation, paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants, stains, and varnishes.

We spend nearly 90% of our time indoors, which means we are spending a majority of our lives inhaling chemicals that are potentially harmful.  Add to that the fact that children spend a third of their time in school buildings that often have ventilation issues and aging materials.  As troubling, hospitals and medical facilities use building materials and supplies that are made of plastics and off-gas VOC’s, potentially harming the most fragile and sensitive of our building inhabitants. 

What can we do?

We as consumers must learn the language of toxins in the built environment and be mindful of what we allow in our homes, offices, schools, and medical facilities.   There are a number of programs available to help consumers make smart decisions regarding plastics and VOC’s.  Many of the best programs are based on the California Special Environmental Requirements Section 01350 Standard for Emissions Testing, more commonly referred to as Section 01350.  Programs that are based on this standard include:

  • FloorScore:  Resilient floorings that earns the FloorScore rating have been tested by the Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) and are proven to meet the 01350 VOC emission requirements.
  • GreenGuard Certification for Children and Schools:  Furniture and indoor finishes that earn the GreenGuard certification have been tested by Air Quality Sciences (ACS) and meet the lower end of the 01350 VOC emission requirements.
  • GreenLabel Plus:   Carpets, adhesives, and cushions that earn the GreenLabel Plus designation have been tested by the Carpet and Rug Institute to meet the 01350 emission requirements. 
  • Indoor Advantage Gold:  Wall coverings, systems furniture, casework, insulation, and other non-flooring interior products are certified by the Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) to meet the 01350 emission requirements.
  • Green Seal Certified Products:  Paints and coatings that meet this standard meet strict VOC content standards.

We as community leaders must educate ourselves and others on these hardly detectable threats to health and wellness.  Many non-profit organizations exist to help the public make smart decisions on chemical use, building materials, waste disposal, and healthy living.

  • The US Green Building  USGBC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to a prosperous and sustainable future for the nation through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.  The organization oversees the development and integrity of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System that is used globally as a method to quantify high-performing and environmentally responsible buildings.
  • Healthy Building  The Healthy Building Network is working to transform the market for building materials to advance the best environmental, health and social practices.
  • Green Team  The Green Team Project (GTP) is a grassroots environmental non-profit project of the Tides Center whose focus is to empower and motivate people to make a difference environmentally through their own practices.  GTP is dedicated to changing long-term consumption behavior, increasing environmental awareness and stewardship, creating a greater sense of community, improving the quality of life, and having fun.

The old adage “Knowledge is Power” is a critical mantra in the battle against toxins in the built environment.  Know that we are surrounded by materials that may contain toxins.  Know what those toxins are.  Know how they can harm you.  Know how to make better choices.  And then use the power to make change in your community, offices, schools, and homes.


theresa spurling-wood said ..

on the subject of mercury in schools. Would like help in getting support to have all mercury thermostats removed from Florida public schools as soon as possible. Does anyone know of a grant available to assist school districts with this task?

August 26, 2013
Arnold P. Wendroff, PhD said ..

Historical elemental mercury spills contaminate science facilities of most junior and senior high schools that are older than ~20 years, yet no program is in place to test laboratories, demonstration rooms, store rooms and sink traps for elevated levels of mercury vapor. Homes in many Caribbean and Latino communities are contaminated with elemental mercury put to magico-religious use, yet there is no advocacy for the assessment and remediation of mercury-contaminated housing. To learn more type into Google Scholar

June 12, 2013
Aquiles Palomino said ..

I would like to know how you can make your employer do environmental testing for hazardous materials in your office. I work 10 hours a day in a VA building at North Hills California.

June 7, 2013

Comments closed.