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Is Your Building Filled With Junk That Makes It Hard To Breathe?

Quick! Hold your breath. The air you’re breathing right now is filled with chemicals that might be slowly giving you asthma. It might be the materials your building is built with, or it might be the frogs. That’s right: frogs.

Is Your Building Filled With Junk That Makes It Hard To Breathe?
Sergio Hayashi/Shutterstock

If you’re an informed consumer, it’s possible that you know about the toxic chemicals in your laptop, your soda, and maybe even your deodorant. But the built environment is still something of a mystery when it comes to toxic chemicals. Design firm Perkins+Will has slowly been working to chip away at the mystery with the transparency section of its website, which looks at harmful substances (i.e. arsenic and BPA), flame retardants, and as of this week, asthma triggers and asthmagens (substances that induce asthma) that are commonly found in the built environment.

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In a new report (PDF), Healthy Environments: A Compilation of Substances Linked to Asthma, Perkins+Will calls out 374 substances common in buildings that are asthma triggers or asthmagens. The methodology is simple, but powerful: comparing publicly available lists of asthma triggers and asthmagens with their presence in building products (based on Perkins+Will’s experience designing buildings and other lists).

No one who works indoors is exempt from exposure to these substances–there are 75 substances linked to asthma in paints and adhesives, which are found in most indoor environments. But certain occupations are more exposed than others. Dentists, for example, are exposed to 14 profession-specific asthma-inducing substances. Lab workers have to deal with chloroform (used as a solvent in labs), factory workers are exposed to himic anhydride (used in manufacturing), and forensic workers deal with ninhydrin (used to detect fingerprints).

Not all of items on the list are manufactured substances. Some of the stranger asthma-inducing items: frogs, locusts, pigs, silkworms, houseplants, and prawns.

We can’t kill every single frog in the name of reducing asthmagens and asthma triggers, but building-material manufacturers can be more conscientious about the substances they use. The Building Product Transparency Project, a partnership between Perkins+Will and architectural product company Construction Specialties, is working on a series of building products that have their ingredients listed right on the packaging. It’s a start.

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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

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