Does calling a building “green” mean it’s healthy? Not according to researchers from the nonprofit research institution Silent Spring, who found dozens of harmful chemicals in newly renovated, LEED-certified low-income public housing in Boston. While some of these chemicals came from outside products the residents brought when they moved in–like cleaning supplies, beauty products, and even furniture–many others came from the building itself.
“We often slap this word ‘green’ in front of things and assume that means something,” says Robin Dodson, the lead author on the paper who studies chemical exposure at Silent Spring. “It was renovated according to ‘green’ standards, and if you could see me, I’m putting that word in quotes.”
The researchers at Silent Spring aren’t alone in calling attention to the harmful chemicals in building materials. The U.S. Green Building Council has come under fire from researchers in the past for presenting a false assurance of health and safety in its LEED-certified buildings. Meanwhile, Google is building a green materials database and decision-making tool meant to make our buildings less poisonous. Dodson’s research, which took years to complete, is a glimpse into an aspect of green architecture about which little is known.
In 2013, Dodson and her team took air-quality samples at a low-income public housing development in Boston that was being renovated to achieve the LEED certification. It presented the perfect chance for the researchers to test the apartments’ air quality before anyone moved in, and then after residents were occupying each space. The comparison was crucial, since it helped distinguish which chemicals came from external products and which came from the building. They tested for almost 100 different chemicals including phthalates (commonly found in nail polish remover), flame retardants, pesticides, and formaldehyde, which have a variety of adverse health effects like hormone disruption, reproductive disorders, lower IQ, asthma, and cancer.
Ultimately, the researchers found harmful flame retardants, including a carcinogen that can cause lower fertility in men, that appeared to come from building materials. Meanwhile, another flame retardant found in their tests had been banned from use in 2005, but was likely used in an old piece of furniture that a resident brought into their new apartment–an example of how pervasive harmful chemicals can be once they’re used. The scariest finding: In all 37 tests they did, the researchers found formaldehyde–coming from the building and from the residents–that exceeded safe levels determined by the EPA. Formaldehyde is used in a wide range of products and building materials, and it’s been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. High exposure might also cause cancer in humans.
Dodson argues the study is proof that the building industry needs to dramatically shift how it thinks about health as an element of sustainability. “Green building standards need to do a better job thinking about the chemicals and materials being used,” Dodson says. “Why not be more comprehensive in your thinking? It’s not just about energy efficiencies–are we improving health?”
Google’s green materials database, called Portico, could help with that goal. Because the company has instituted its own strict standards for building its many campuses around the world, the database is a central depository for everything the company’s architects and builders have learned. The more than 2,600 materials in the database are each given ratings based on Google’s stringent internal health and sustainability guidelines and where it stands on external certifications, like LEED and Living Building Challenge. Portico now has a limited number of users–including the architecture firm Perkins + Will–with the goal to open it more broadly in the future.
While Google attacks the problem from within the private sector, the researchers’ findings hint at a bigger problem: that this so-called “green” public housing is even more harmful because it was specifically built for low-income people, who may not have the wherewithal to move. Studies have shown that low-income people and minorities suffer more from diseases linked to low air quality than do their affluent neighbors. According to Gary Adamkiewicz, another author on the paper and an assistant professor of environmental health and exposure disparities at Harvard’s School of Public Health, this means that these groups of people are more likely to suffer from diseases tied to contaminants in their environment, like asthma. When there are toxic chemicals floating around inside public housing, it perpetuates the disproportionate impact on these populations.
Dodson said she was surprised to find traces of chemicals used in sunscreens and nail polish as well, potentially used in the building’s floor finishing. While not necessarily dangerous to humans, the finding indicates just how little information there is about what goes into our building materials. “It doesn’t matter if you’re public housing or a single family home,” Dodson says. “We have a lack of real understanding about what is in building materials in general. We need to know more about that.”
The lack of knowledge or understanding about chemicals in our day-to-day environments goes beyond building materials. Dodson, who has focused on the chemicals used in household products in previous research, says that this is fundamentally a policy problem that impacts every space and product people touch. “We allow chemicals to be used before they’ve been fully vetted,” she says. “They can be put out there, and put into products we might use everyday, and it’s not until there’s a big larger issue that they would then be recalled or pulled out [of circulation].” In an ideal world, every building material would come with a full list of every chemical used to make it–something that only a policy change could mandate, because manufacturers tend to keep their processes and supply chain hidden.
Dodson collected the samples in 2013, but the study took an additional four years to complete. She describes her research as detective work, since companies are so secretive about what chemicals go into the materials they make. Her job–and our collective human health–would be far better served if companies were more transparent about the chemicals used in building materials. Then, materials could be evaluated before being used in homes, potentially putting people’s lives in danger.
Since not all of us have a lot of choice over where we live, Dodson says there are some simple things you can do now to reduce the chemicals you’re exposed to, like opening your windows, vacuuming regularly, and taking off your shoes before entering your home. Silent Spring even released an app last year called Detox Me that gives some helpful pointers. Next, she hopes to test out buildings that are being thoughtfully built with nontoxic materials.
While researchers play detective to document the harmful toxins that could be floating through our everyday environments, it’s worth remembering: from advertising to architecture, “green” doesn’t always mean much.