Category Archives: Building Biology

LEED and Your Air (part 3)

Dr. Helena Riess, of Wellness Management Consultants, says that while LEED, the leading standard for construction, may be a good starting point for energy efficient buildings, it does not mean the building is a healthy or a biologically safe living environment.

Dr. Riess, and others have long pointed out that LEED certification has a number of levels, all of which indicate how green a building might be. “But,” she said today, “That has nothing to do with health, and in some cases a green building can be more unhealthy than an older non-certified structure.”

Older buildings which may not have the insulation and containment of a green building, may use more energy, but in many cases the air flow, keeps the indoor air fresher and healthier than some green buildings.

This can be particularly important if the office building is furnished with materials that outgas VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) which are trapped in the sealed building and can build up in the human body.

Dr. Riess pointed to a recent Harvard University study which detailed the impact of polluted air on cognitive function.

“I think the pendulum has begun to swung away from air tight LEED Certified buildings to those which may not be quite as energy efficient, but are much healthier for workers,” she concluded.

 

Improving Your Air Quality (part 2)

Pointing to a recent Harvard University study on indoor air quality in office settings, Dr. Helena Riess today urged everyone to have a home assessment done to determine the potential sources of VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) in their home.

Dr. Riess noted that while the issue is important for the workplace, the cumulative impact of VOC’s on young children can be even more severe.

VOC’s are present in hundreds of products that consumers bring into their home every day. “We don’t give a second thought to what kind of carpet we use when we redecorate for the new baby, or what kind of adhesives were used for the new dresser set in a child’s bedroom, but they can all be sources of VOC’s which can impede or retard the development of young children.

“Consumers need to look for eco-friendly products with minimal or non-VOC ingredients that do not outgas or negatively affect our health and well-being- rather than looking for brands that contain VOC’s and toxins. If we don’t,  In  the end, the costs can be even greater for overall health.”

Firms can do a chemical analysis of your home indoor air quality, but in many cases, it’s just matter of having a specialist take a look at the products in your home. You can then eliminate them immediately, or at least over time, Dr. Riess said.

VOC’s and Air Quality (part 1)

PRI’s Living on Earth, recently featured a Harvard University study that measured the impact of air quality on the cognitive function of office workers.

Not surprisingly, at least not to anyone who has studied Building Biology, the study found that poor air quality leads to a decrease in cognitive functioning.

Helena Riess, Ph. D. of Wellness Management Consultants , notes that while more study is needed, this may be among the first studies to show that society is slowly changing it’s attitude toward overall air quality both in the office and at home.

“Building Biologists, have long pointed out that VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) can impact personal health and need to be minimized,” Dr. Riess noted.

She went on, ‘ We advise all our clients to survey their homes and eliminate as many sources of VOC’s as possible.”

VOC’s outgas from hundreds of products such as sealants, glues, adhesives, and preservatives as well as plastics and man-made products like carpets and even wallpaper.

From a home standpoint, according to Dr. Helena Riess, the real issue is that the VOC’s measured from any one product may not exceed accepted standards, but they build up over time and have a cumulative effect.

Some Hope on the Horizon?

Two items in the news this week have given us some reason for optimism that future generations will live in a healthier world.

First, Chipotle Restaurants announced it will no longer use ingredients that contained genetically modified (GMO) components.Unknown

Now, I am fully aware that, the Chipotle announcement was about 90% marketing hype, since you could drive a truck through the qualifications and exceptions. These include soft drinks and other products where they could not find substitutes.

Additionally, this says nothing of the GMO products fed to animals that provide the beef, pork, or chicken in their food. But it does include corn, which is largely a GMO product in the United States and is an important ingredient at a restaurant specializing in Mexican food.

But the announcement marks the first time a well-known major chain has made any statement on GMO’s and flies directly in the face of the Monsanto supporters who claim the food is perfectly safe and there is no reason to even label the products.

The announcement comes, of course, just a week after, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, famously stopped for lunch at a Chipotle restaurant on her initial campaign trip.

Now, this also says nothing about the overall wellness level of the food at Chipotle, since many people insist that it’s not too many steps above fast food.

Will the announcement alone end the use of Roundup and make the world less polluted? Probably not, but if it raises awareness and helps the next ballot battle to label GMO foods, I think we should support it.

Combined with the impending labeling rules that Whole Foods hopes to implement by 2018, maybe consumers will be able to vote on GMO products with their wallets.

The second development was the announcement by a group of scientists and a federal official putting pressure on chemical giant Dupont to reduce the use of PFAS’s.

PFAS’s, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals, used in everything from carpets to pizza boxes, that many independent scientists claim increase the risk of cancer.

Under public pressure, some classes of the chemicals were replaced a few years ago, but now a new effort is being made to ban them entirely. Industry, which has a financial interest in their continued use, insists they are safe but unfortunately, since they stay in the human body for decades, it is very difficult to verify their claims.

The only solution, in my book, would be to ban them entirely to create healthier products and lessen the body burden of chemicals, which are leading to a host of health issues which no one can, or will explain.

This week, Linda S. Birnbaum, the head of the national toxicology program for the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote a commentary article in a well respected journal, questioning whether the chemical should be used, given their lifespan in the environment.

Earlier in the week a group of 200 scientists from all over the world urged all countries to ban the use of PFAS’s.

Together the two items will help consumers confront the chemical industry and demand that businesses find more environmentally friendly substances to replace them.

If we are going to improve our health and wellness, we all need help to create an environment where hidden chemicals, toxins, GMO’s and pesticides do not contaminate our world.

The Floor is Just the Start

The recent CBS 60-Minutes Report on Lumber Liquidators  is just the latest example of how a healthier home can be a key ingredient in a Wellness Lifestyle.Unknown-1

The report left no doubt that contractors play a key role in creating healthier buildings. This leads to a key question:  Should a building contractor’s job estimate come with a warning label?

After all, like the drugs prescribed by medical professionals, the work being done has the potential to adversely impact the health and wellbeing of every family member.

The contractor will be ripping open walls and ceilings, uncovering previously hidden potential dangers such as mold, dust, or even asbestos. They will ‘repair’ the damage according to specifications you outline, by introducing materials, adhesives, and coatings which can introduce chemicals which might outgas dangerous chemical indefinitely.

The reality is that few homeowners question what materials, or chemicals will be used to build or remodel their homes. So, the issue becomes, what responsibility does the contractor have to make their clients aware of the long-term implications of the work being one.ibe-house

Increasingly contractors have begun to realize that homeowners cannot be expected to understand the building biology that will become their environment for a significant portion of each day. Building biology deals with the relationship between humans and their building environment. The concept originated over 20 years ago in Germany but has now spread worldwide as people realize that their health, and the health of their families, are tied to their home environment.

The impact might be an asthma attack in a youngster allergic to dust, or a reaction to mold spores that had lain dormant since the home was constructed years before. More serious implications such as sick building syndrome, or serious disease touched off by multiple chemical sensitivity are all possible, but are rarely covered by any construction contract.

Whether it’s the water we drink, the air we breathe or the unseen electromagnetic energy sources that inundate us daily, the impact can be substantial.

It’s doubtful that a contractor would want to cast him or herself into the role of lecturer, imposing a code of standards that home owners would have to fulfill to take advantage of the skills necessary for remodeling. But at the very least, they should offer resources to their clients and make sure they know that cleaner, healthier and safer alternatives exist.

Very often these alternative have financial implications and even more often, they are beyond the local building code requirements. But like doctors, who have an obligation to inform patients of all the alternative available, contractors need to make sure, consumers are making informed decisions.

Contractors don’t need to be experts, there is a whole new burgeoning industry of experts trained to help consumers, – but carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other professionals need to know where these resources can be found.

imagesIf there were no health implications building materials should be designed so that they can return to the earth to be reused by future generations. The United States has long been criticized as a disposable society, ignoring the long-term social cost, of having the latest and greatest new invention. But slowly, the tide is turning and we are all becoming attuned to what will happen to our gadgets once we’ve tossed them aside.

The same should be true of buildings. Will the wood coated with preservatives ever decompose? Can materials be broken down by living organisms once it’s consigned to a landfill. If not, should we have been exposing humans to that chemical for 75 or 100 years when the house was inhabited.

Unfortunately for humans, the impact of out-gassing chemicals can be cumulative. Each one may be tested by a state or federal agency but, until recently, no one has measured the cumulative impact of the chemicals contractors use every day.

Now there are adhesives and bonding agents which produce few, if any, harmful gas as they cure. There are cost effective insulation and coatings that do not release chemicals into the home environment. There are finish materials such as no-VOC paints and sealants that don’t leave the finished project smelling like a chemical factory.

There are steps homeowners and contractors can take that go beyond ‘greening’ and energy efficiency that make the home less toxic in the long run.

Gone are the days when America consumers longed for that ‘new car smell’ when dad took everyone for a ride in the latest release from Detroit. Now we know that the smell was really the out-gassing of the many synthetic substances used to catch our attention on the dealer showroom.

No, contractor’s estimates don’t need a new warning label, but contractors and consumers need to know that they bear some responsibility for creating healthy living environments that will be safe as we live in them today and safer for future generations.

The next time you consider a kitchen or bathroom remodel, or your family outgrows your home and you decide that an addition is needed, ask your contractor about building biology and how it might impact your project.