Volatilization is the process by which chemicals are vaporized and released into the air. It is common among wet-applied materials, such as adhesives, paints, and finishes.
Abrasion is any scratching, scuffing, or rubbing away of a material—resulting in the release of small particles and dust. It may be evident in recognizable fade and wear patterns, such as in the steps shown above.
Material contents can also be released, or leached, directly into liquids. Water and oil soluble compounds have potential to contaminate food and drinking supplies, and may be more easily absorbed through the skin.
Oxidation is a metabolic process that occurs with reactions like burning and rusting, which can release harmful byproducts into the environment. Dioxins, for example, are released from the burning of halogenated chemicals, used in some fluorescent light bulbs.
Inhalation exposure can result from breathing in contaminated air, dust, and other airborne particulates. Building materials or construction activities that release fumes, VOCs, and other aerosols are particularly prone to being inhaled, and may lead to a variety of respiratory diseases.
Ingestion (eating and drinking)
Ingestion exposure can result from eating or drinking contaminated substances. This contamination may come from chemicals in food packaging, agricultural pesticides, residue from atmospheric pollutants, or toxics that have accumulated through the food chain.
Ingestion (hand-to-mouth contact)
Ingestion exposure can also occur through inadvertent, non-dietary means, such as hand-to-mouth contact, in which we may consume contaminated soil, dust, or other chemical residues through unintentional behaviors. Children are particularly vulnerable to this type of exposure.
Toxic substances can be absorbed through oils in the skin and hair follicles. Exposure can result from contact with contaminated soil, dust, water, or consumer products. Children are also particularly vulnerable to dermal exposure, as they have greater contact with floor surfaces, where contaminants tend to settle.
Newborns may be exposed to toxic chemicals through breast milk if their mothers have such toxics in their bloodstream. The proteins in human milk readily bind with several types of heavy metals, and have also been shown to transmit pesticides, neurotoxicants, and other harmful chemicals.
Some chemical compounds are able to pass through the placental membrane, transferring hazardous toxics from mother to developing fetus. Such chemicals include toxic flame retardants, lead, Teflon compounds, and BPA.
Asthma is a respiratory disease that has been linked to chemicals commonly found in paints, adhesives, floors, carpet, and foam insulation. Rates of asthma have been growing since 1980, with nearly 26 million people affected today, including 8 million children.
Cancer has been linked to chemicals such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, which are metals commonly found in a variety of building materials. While cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US, many of these cases can be preventable through limiting exposure to toxic chemicals.
Exposure to certain environmental pollutants presents the greatest threat to reproductive health, with effects such as reduced fertility in both men and women. Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system are of particular concern, with substances like BPA and phthalates interfering with hormone activity.
Neonatal exposures to indoor air pollutants have been linked to preterm birth, which is the leading cause of infant mortality worldwide. These pollutants are released by a variety of materials, such as VOCs from paints and adhesives, or urea-formaldehyde from furniture and cabinetry.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a disorder now affecting 1 in 68 American children, is associated with a variety of environmental factors. These include prenatal exposure to certain pesticides, mercury, BPA, and early childhood exposures to air pollution.
Exposure to chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system have been shown to affect obesity. These chemicals include PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) and flame retardants, which are often used in treatments for upholstery, carpeting, and foam insulation.
We're All Affected
These risks affect all of us. While some populations are more vulnerable than others, material contaminations are difficult to contain. They affect our air, water, food supplies, and the global environment, yielding hazards that impact our world at all scales.
Children are particularly vulnerable to exposure with floor-level activities that put them in closer contact with settling toxics, and immature metabolisms that are less able to process these chemicals. Exposures at this stage of development also have greater impact on lifelong health conditions.
Fenceline communities, which are zones neighboring industrial facilities that use hazardous chemicals, are vulnerable to chemical spills and environmental pollutants. The residents of these areas are disproportionately Black and Latino, and face poverty rates higher than the U.S. average.
Lower-income populations are more frequently exposed to substandard building materials and environmental health hazards. They also have higher rates of disability and less access to health care, making them both more vulnerable and more impacted by toxics in the environment.
Pregnant Women and Developing Fetuses
Many harmful chemicals are able to pass through the placental membrane, which means if pregnant women are exposed to toxics, it can affect fetal development at a critical period of growth. Exposures to chemicals like VOCs have been shown to contribute to low birth weight, prematurity, and birth defects that impact the baby’s immune system and ongoing health later in life.
Manufacturers and Contractors
Workers on the job site or in manufacturing facilities are particularly vulnerable to exposure, as chemicals are more frequently in an airborne state, and workers are exposed for longer periods of time. Certain materials, such as wet-applied products, also release a higher proportion of VOCs during their initial application.
Maintenance and Custodial Staff
While building staff and custodial workers are often responsible for maintaining indoor air quality and preventing pest infestations, the chemicals used to do so are often highly toxic. It is important to establish cleaning and maintenance protocols that maintain sanitary environments, while avoiding hazardous chemicals.
Emergency Response Workers
Emergency response workers are often forced to encounter highly toxic situations, from fires to chemical spills to acts of terrorism. Some materials become significantly more dangerous in these conditions, such as how PVC releases dioxins when it is burned, or the dust from asbestos, formaldehydes, and benzenes becoming airborne during building collapse, which has contributed to over 5,000 cases of cancer in 9/11 First Responders.
Ensuring healthier materials through knowledge of their components.
Spreading awareness with future generations of decision-makers.
Committing to healthier materials and innovation throughout the design process.
Engaging with communities, clients, manufacturers, contractors, designers and educators.
Advocating for health as a priority through collaborative efforts to make a difference.
Changing the standards and requirements to ensure that health is a right, not a privilege.
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