The chemical cocktails lurking in your office paints, adhesives, computers, printers… and more

There’s a great big yawning gap in research when it comes to sustainable buildings around the chemical cocktails created by our fitouts and furnishings and what they are doing to occupant health.

It was a topic that saw a flurry of investigation in the early 2000s through to 2011 or so in Australia, but just when CSIRO concluded early findings were worrying and more research needed to be done as a matter of urgency, priorities changed.

Experts in the indoor environment quality space and product specification and testing sectors have told The Fifth Estate that currently, the majority of research is happening in Asia.

Not that all material and product sectors are working in the dark when it comes to toxic chemical impacts. The paint, floor coverings and cleaning products sectors are “leading the charge” when it comes to transparency and product health impacts, according to Kate Harris, chief executive of Good Environmental Choice Australia.

Harris says the WELL Building standard is also driving a growing level of awareness of the importance of considering the chemicals a product might emit into an indoor environment.

She expects this concern to flow through from the commercial office space into the residential space.

Consumers are starting to want to know what is in products, and how it might affect them, she says.

On behalf of GECA, Harris was among the signatories of a letter to manufacturers and suppliers put out by the Living Future Institute (Australia) late last year, calling on them to take up the opportunity of gaining Declare certification.

Other signatories included Cundall, Frasers Property, Integral Group, UTA, Junglefy, Roberts Day and the International WELL Building Institute.

Declare labelling sets out the full product ingredients list, with percentages for each one. It also identifies which constituents are on the Red List of problematic chemicals.

Currently, the products that are listed with Declare are a small and select group.

Generally, there are some product categories that are lagging when it comes to obtaining testing around the chemicals they might emit, such as volatile organic compounds.

Dr Tuan Duong, senior consultant for NATA-accredited technical risk management consultancy, CETEC, in an interview with The Fifth Estate says that most building materials manufacturers, furniture manufacturers and makers of products such as decorative boards are not seeking verification through testing of the potential for their products to offgass VOCs.

There are also some products, such as solvent-based paints, coatings and adhesives where it is extremely difficult to avoid VOCs, he says.

These types of products can be the worm within the apple when it comes to products made from natural materials such as timber or bamboo.

The major material might be a low-carbon, naturally-produced and sustainability-certified wood or bamboo, but Duong says that in general, the majority of products such as timber desks or bamboo flooring are not considered VOC-free or low VOC as they are often treated with chemical and adhesives or involve coating materials.

He says the VOCs his company most frequently finds in products it tests range from C6 (Hexane, Dimethylbutane) to C16 Fluorene and N-Hexadecane.

These types of compounds do have human health risks.

“VOCs include a variety of chemicals that can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and skin problems,” Duong says.

“Higher concentrations may cause irritation of the lungs, as well as damage to the liver, kidney, or central nervous system. Long-term exposure may also cause damage to the liver, kidneys or central nervous system.”

Some are also suspected of causing cancer, and some have been shown to do so.

The overall health effects depend on concentration and length of exposure.

“Most people are not affected by short-term exposure to the low levels of VOCs found in homes,” Duong says.

“Some people may be more sensitive, such as people with asthma. For long-term exposure to low levels of VOCs, research is ongoing to better understand any health effects from these exposures.”

It’s not only the more fixed items in a building such as furniture and finishes that might add VOCs or other toxins to the indoor environment. Tuong confirms that electronics also offgas some concerning substances.

A UC Berkeley Study in 2009 found that computers, laptops and printers offgas a number of risky substances.  The research also notes that unlike some VOCs, the brominated flame retardants, organophosphate flame retardants and siloxane emissions do not “age” in terms of demonstrating rapidly declining offgassing rates through time.

It also shows that the rate of emissions of VOCs by digital equipment tends to increase in tandem with increases in power consumption.

Brominated flame retardants are now banned from manufacture in Australia, due to their health risks. However, the ban extends only to on-shore manufacture, not to importing of products containing the brominated flame retardants, which researchers at RMIT last year found are still being ingested by householders along with the general internal dust particles.

Another category of product that has been hitting the toxin-watch radar is spray-in insulations based on polyurethane foams. It’s a product the US EPA has issued some cautions around.

The agency also states that more research is needed to understand the potential for offgassing.

Improved insulation and building sealing generally add to the potential for toxic emissions issues, the US EPA says.

“Remember, insulation is intended to seal a residence and can significantly decrease air exchanges, emissions from [spray polyurethane foam] and other products, including combustion sources, can build up in a building.” US EPA says.

Many researchers have also waved a major red flag over the lack of research into what happens when a range of off-gassed chemicals combine in the air and make new compounds.

Some have noted the fact that heat in the indoor environment also plays a role in facilitating unexpected chemical reactions that can create all kinds of unexpected results – with unknown and currently unstudied potential health impacts.

So, where’s the good news?

The good news is that many of these chemical risks can in fact be avoided – if that decision is made early in the design process, according to founding owner of BP Architects Bridget Puszka.

Her practice specialises in energy-efficient and low-allergy homes, and has designed and delivered homes for sensitive clients including asthmatics and people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. MCS is a challenging condition to live with for people who have it, and there is still some medical debate over whether it is a genuine medical condition.

Puszka’s says her approach to sustainable design was informed by her previous professional life as a registered nurse prior to becoming a qualified architect.

She also undertook Master degree studies in the UK around advanced energy and environmental studies in relation to architecture.

Puszka says two of the problematic products for buildings are MDF and chipboard. While they can be laminated to reduce surfaces that can offgas, where they are exposed and the adhesives, treatments and other products used offgas VOCs they will do so for around 10 years.

By contrast, she says paint will generally stop outgassing once it has dried and cured.

Materials such as chipboard and MDF are also often in the building for a long time, as they are used for fitout elements such as cabinets, benches and wardrobes.

Puszka says it is important for specifiers, builders and others to look at the manufacture’s health and safety data reports and check products are free of substances such as formaldehyde.

Using water-soluble adhesives and sealants where possible is also a good choice as it can reduce the quantity of VOC-containing solvent-based products.

There are also some sneaky ways VOCs can become part of a home. She notes that where materials such as chipboard or furnishings are stored in a location shared by products high in VOCs, adsorbtion can take place, contaminating the VOC-free product.

The same can occur inside a home, for example, where soft furnishings are in place and VOCs are emitted by fresh paint.

The adsorbed VOCs will then over time be emitted by the products that have been contaminated.

Some natural products can also be a problem where occupants have specific sensitivities, such as the terpenes emitted by some pine products.

“You need to look past the label,” she says, to eliminate products that are going to potentially cause a reaction or have health impacts.

One of the big challenges is that unlike mould spores or dust mites, which almost any occupant is likely to react to, not everyone reacts to any one specific chemical in the same way.

There is also not enough research – yet – into the impact of indoor chemicals.

But why wait for more research?

Puszka says best practice generally should be to design and deliver buildings that are energy-efficient, low-allergy and low-chemical.

“Best practice means that the building that is delivered, even though the occupant might not be sensitive, they are getting a healthy building.

“Why wouldn’t you want that?

“We can deliver beautiful, amazing buildings that are energy-efficient and low-allergy and provide an environment without compromise and are also cost-effective.”

It is not too hard, she adds, it’s just about having the knowledge and applying it.

In answer to the frequently heard comment that a sustainable, healthy building might cost more, she says that she has just been writing about this from the perspective of renovations for her blog.

The bottom line is, she says, if a building is putting your health at risk, once you are sick, chances are you would “pay anything to get your health back”.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Excellent article Willow.

    You can have a healthy home. An energy efficient building that has good air quality with the right product and material selection.

    And as the philosophers before us have said: “Prevention is better than Cure”.