State of health
Hazardous chemicals can be found everywhere. Modern life has brought hazardous chemicals into our homes and lives through everyday products such as clothing, electronics, and food packaging, and can increase the risk of serious illness. Exposure to toxic or polluting materials is an environmental and public health concern across all stages of the built environment lifecycle, from the production of materials to buildings in occupation and beyond.
The relationship between building materials and health in the built environment is multi-faceted; four core concepts to improve human health and quality of life are outlined below.
Safe production of materials:
Workers involved in generating materials across the supply chain needed for construction are at risk of diverse health issues, one example being the production of bricks. Brick kilns, 90% of which are in Asia, are recognised as one of the largest stationary sources of black carbon which, along with iron and steel production, contribute 20% of the total global black carbon emissions22. The consequential air pollution is damaging to human health on both local and global scales, as discussed in Principle 1.1. A reduction in wasted materials, both through higher site efficiencies and construction practices and the reuse of existing materials as part of a circular economy, would subsequently reduce the pollution from production.
Circular material use:
The concept of circular material use, and ‘cradle to cradle’ principles, are recognised as best practices in sustainability globally for the built environment, considering both materials within building interiors, as well as heavy materials utilised in construction. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation considers the transition to a circular economy as the required ‘fundamental shift in the global approach to cutting emissions’, and states the implementation of circular principles in five core areas worldwide could eliminate emissions on a scale equivalent to those generated by all transport globally23. Heavy industries (cement, steel, aluminium) represent three of the five core areas focused on in this research, and are substantial contributors to the embodied emissions of building and infrastructure projects, thus emphasising the major role the building and construction industry must play.
Materials found within healthy, sustainable buildings should be operating as part of a circular economy of material re-use. Materials must also mitigate risk of poor indoor environmental quality through the release of airborne pollutants, such as VOCs. These materials are termed ‘low-emissive’. Circular material use calls for re-use and recycling of existing resources, however, hazardous chemicals that currently exist within the built environment must be extracted through retrofit and deconstruction work, allowing reuse of non-contaminated materials only. The use of natural materials is also prioritised within a circular economy, which can be repurposed or recycled as part of a biological cycle of material use.
Man-made toxic chemicals are common ingredients in many everyday products24, and studies are demonstrating serious long-term impacts on human health due to this continued exposure. For example, scientists have linked the fact that men in the Western world produce half as much sperm as they did 40 years ago to the exposure to toxic chemicals25, and that exposure to toxic chemicals can increase the risk of breast cancer in women26. Other studies link exposure to toxic chemicals to attributable IQ loss and intellectual disability in children27.
Many of the hazardous substances in widespread use are replaceable with safer alternatives. For many building products, hazards in product ingredients are unknown or protected by trade secrets. Seeking greater disclosure of building material ingredients as well as finding safer alternatives are ways the building and construction industry can support the transition to safer chemicals being used and developed.
Designing out waste:
For many cities, the disposal and treatment of waste is a growing burden that is increasingly difficult to tackle. From 2000-2012, waste generated in cities approximately doubled, increasing from 680 million tonnes to 1.3 billion tonnes per year. This figure is expected to nearly double again to 2.2 billion tonnes by 202528 as a result of increasing population, urbanisation, and changing consumption patterns.
The waste problem is most severe in urbanising regions and developing countries, where collection and disposal services do not exist or cannot cope with increasing amounts of waste. As a result, waste is either disposed in open and uncontrolled dumpsites, openly burned, or leaks into the land, waterways and oceans. This represents the third largest man-made source of methane29. Unmanaged waste may also become a breeding ground for microbes and toxins that contaminate the air, soil, and water30. Waste is also a severe risk-factor to marine ecosystems and natural life, particularly plastic pollution of ocean environments31.
These practices have deleterious impacts on public health, the environment, and the wellbeing of waste workers and nearby residents. Our buildings and communities have a central role in waste reduction, both as the locations in which we live, work and use the majority of our products and resources, but also through the construction industry’s sustainable management and use of materials.
Building projects consciously avoid the use of hazardous materials and chemicals during construction projects (including retrofit and deconstruction), facilitating the extraction from existing materials and projects to avoid contamination and further circulation in industry. All projects support the built environment sector’s transition to a circular economy with minimal waste leakage into the natural environment.
Strategies across the lifecycle
Minimise use of resources using life cycle assessment (to optimise balance between materials and energy use, dematerialization, waste generation, etc.)
Choosing products wisely based on chemical content/makeup/constitution, prioritising natural and low-emissive materials for environments occupied by people and transition away from hazardous chemical use, and utilise recovered materials to implement a circular economy of material use
Avoid hazardous substances, and safely remove, if feasible, to facilitate recycling and circular re-use of materials
Close the loop: design out waste, create circular products, and prefer refurbished, remanufactured, and recycled products in purchasing
Prevent waste from building design by using modular systems/components, eliminating finishes, and supporting manufacturers that participate in circular economy and zero waste design goals for products
Ensure projects have multiple waste streams (including food waste) with source separation to support occupant behaviour change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with operational waste
Promote composting (food waste) and recycling on-site in buildings, from construction to operational stages of building lifecycle
Organic waste diversion to minimize food and landscape waste to landfills can reduce methane generation and avoid unnecessary expansion of landfill to accommodate excess waste
Prevent open waste burning: Promoting alternatives to open burning to reduce black carbon emissions and to prevent the release of cancer-causing compounds and other toxic substances.
Litter reduction programs to prevent leakage into the environment
Whole Building Life Cycle Assessments undertaken at design stage, benchmarked in accordance with national averages, or by comparing an innovative, low-carbon design against a similar building using traditional design and material
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and product chemical transparency labelling schemes for specific products
Hazardous chemical lists, such as REACH restricted substances list (EU Regulation) and additional market resources