Haunted Houses: A New Site Reveals The Nasty Chemicals Lurking In Our Buildings

Alert! Almost all the parts of the building you are currently sitting in are made of–or coated in–something poisonous. A new site lets you in on the secret, and offers alternatives for designers and architects hoping to build a little better.

Haunted Houses: A New Site Reveals The Nasty Chemicals Lurking In Our Buildings
Those skeletons wish they had known about all the flame retardants before they made a down payment.

Even if you do your best to avoid toxic chemicals in your everyday life, there’s no avoiding your home or office. And it’s there, in the materials used to construct the built environment, where some of the worst chemical offenders lie.


Design firm Perkins+Will first revealed some of these chemicals in 2009, when it rolled out the Precautionary List–a storehouse of chemicals found in building products that are known to be hazardous by government agencies. That list has now been rolled into the new Transparency Site, which features a precautionary materials list, an asthma list (building products that are known asthmagens or trigger asthma) and a flame retardants list (flame retardants have numerous health hazards).

“The precautionary list is the center of the constellation. What we realized over the past few years is that we have to go deeper and more in detail about particular health or chemical issues,” explains Peter Syrett, associate principal at Perkins+Will. “There’s no comprehensive database of flame retardants [in building products] besides this. Asthma attacks often come from our built environment.”

Carcinogens are also everywhere. Look around. You might be surrounded by creosete, the most commonly used wood preservative in the United States. The carcinogenic substance is a neurotoxicant and is toxic to skin. There is “Limited evidence of the association between occupational creosote contact and subsequent tumor formation, sufficient evidence of local and distant tumor formation after dermal application to mice, and some evidence of mutagenic activity,” according to the EPA.

How about polystyrene, which is used in rigid insulation? The EPA identifies it as a possible mutagen, carcinogen, chronic toxin, and environmental toxin.

In many cases, there are alternatives to items found on the Precautionary Materials and Asthma lists (and the Transparency Site lists them). Not so with the flame retardant list. In many cases, manufacturers are required by regulatory agencies to meet a certain performance in terms of smoke and fire protection in their products. “There is no alternative for flame retardants. You’re replacing one with another,” says Syrett. “The list is about education.”

There is progress being made in the notoriously opaque building industry. The Health Product Declaration (HDP) Open Standard offers a format to list building products’ content and health information; Perkins+Will recently announced its Building Product Transparency Project; and companies like Construction Specialties and Interface Global are starting to become more open.


Still, “it does take a lot of research to see what substances are in a particular product,” admits Chris Youssef, an interior designer at Perkins+Will. The hope is that the Transparency Site can give the design community (and the rest of us) the power to demand change.

“We would like a world where the consumer can make informed decisions based on the fullest possible information available to them,” says Syrett.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.