Materials make up our world. Much of the industrialized world is built from man-made, industrial chemicals. The chemical industry converts raw materials into more than 70,000 different chemical substances that make up our world. As the global population increases and urban centers expand, so do both the demand for manufactured goods and the rate of chemical production, which is projected to grow three times faster than the global population and expected to double every 25 years.1 The quantity and variety of chemicals on the global market makes the task of tracking chemical hazards both critical and extremely difficult. An estimated 95% of chemicals, used largely in construction, lack sufficient data on human health effects.2 Although various countries apply their own framework for the management of chemical production and use, these are not harmonized globally, so chemicals are regulated to varying extents in different countries.

Life cycle of building materials and exposure hazards. Exposure to harmful chemicals can happen at various stages in the lifecycle of a commercial material or product. Exposure hazards for various stages of a product’s lifecycle are presented below:


Exposure can occur when contaminants are released into the environment during manufacturing or materials extraction, or when hazardous substances are generated and/or handled during manufacturing.3-6

Throughout occupancy of a built space, chemicals used in furniture, furnishings, paints, adhesives and coatings can off-gas and end up in indoor dust, compromising air quality.7-9,19 Proper ventilation practices and materials selection can help minimize indoor air contaminants. For more information on the benefits of adequate ventilation, refer to the Air WELLography

Finish, maintenance and renovation work often involve dust-laden contaminants, fumes, solvents and gases. This is especially problematic in the absence of the exposure and ventilation controls typically required in production or construction settings.

Construction and demolition work often include exposure to large amounts of dust (made up or and carrying chemical substances), as well as solvents, and other hazardous substances, for example those associated with use of diesel-powered heavy equipment.10,17 Fortunately, improved awareness of exposure risks in maintenance, renovation and demolition has prompted additional work safety measures through various voluntary standards.

For an in-depth review of common building material ingredients, exposure routes and health impacts, as well as strategies to improve indoor air quality in your home, refer to the Materials WELLography and the WELL@Home article.

Environmental and health impacts. Building material chemicals (including byproducts of manufacturing) can persist in the environment. Even small concentrations of these chemicals can find their way into an organism, and do so in high enough doses to cause damage (especially over time). The accumulation of toxicants in water or soil has implications for human health as these chemicals can advance up the food chain and accumulate in human tissue.14

Long-term, large-scale biomonitoring studies have helped to show the impact of policy changes on human exposure risks. For example, a Swedish study involving long-term testing of human breast milk for the presence of the pesticide DDT and its residues has shown a significant decrease of the chemical following its restriction and later ban. A gradual decrease in PCB is also evident, likely due to efforts to move away from the chemical across the European Union (EU). In contrast to the decline of these two chemicals over time, concentrations of the flame retardant PBDE was found to increase along the same timeline, consistent with increased across EU states.21

Learn more about chemical persistence and bioaccumulation, and the role these phenomena play in human exposure and health, in the Materials WELLography.

Market forces at work. As evidence of the environmental hazards and health issues related to chemicals continues to build,15 an increasing number of hazard assessment tools have emerged. These evaluation tools are being introduced and used in the marketplace as means to differentiate products and ingredients with lower hazards and to certify greener chemical ingredients in consumer products. Despite gaps in data and regulation, the good news is that we have a growing repository of tools at our disposal that provide direction and clarify the associated hazards and tradeoffs of materials and products over their life cycle. A comprehensive evaluation of building materials and products is a critical first step to identifying safer options across installation, use, maintenance and disposal. In the long run, the call for the prioritization and responsibility of advancing safer chemicals and sustainable materials can lead to an improved, data-rich market, comprehensive and harmonized chemicals management regulations, and investment in green chemistry research.


1. Toward a new U.S. chemicals policy: rebuilding the foundation to advance new science, green chemistry, and environmental health. Wilson, MP and Schwarzman, MR. 9, 2009, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 117, pp. 1202–1209.

2. Pacheco-Torgal, F, Jalali, S and Fucic, A. Toxicity of Building Materials. Sawston : s.n., 2012. p. 512. ISBN: 0857091220.

3. Fernando Pacheco-Torgal S JalaliAleksandra Fucic. Toxicity of Building Materials. Sawston : Woodhead Publishing Series in Civil and Structural Engineering No. 41, 2012. p. 512. ISBN: 0857091220.

4. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Toxic Substances Portal – Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. [Online] 2014.

5. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Public Health Statement for Cadmium. [Online] 2012.

6. Environmental Protection Agency. 4,4′ -Methylenediphenyl Diisocyanate (MDI). [Online] February 3, 2016. [Cited: May 18, 2016.]

7. Environmental Protection Agency. Spray Polyurethane Foam Home. Exposure Potential. [Online] March 2, 2015. [Cited: August 2, 2015.]

8. Environmental Protection Agency. An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). [Online] July 9, 2012. [Cited: August 2, 2015.] .

9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead. Prevention Tips. [Online] June 19, 2014. [Cited: August 2, 2014.]

10. OSHA. Lead in Construction. Washington, DC : U.S. Department of Labor, 2004. OSHA 3142-12R.

11. The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Klepeis NE, Nelson WE, Ott WR, et al. 3, 2001, Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology , Vol. 11, pp. 231-52.

12. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Toxic Substances Portal – Formaldehyde. [Online] July 1999. [Cited: April 3, 2017.]

13. Liu, Z and Little, JC. Materials Responsible for Formaldehyde and Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Emissions. [book auth.] F Pacheco-Torgal, S Jalali and A Fucic. Toxicity of Building Materials. 2012.

14. European Centre for Ecotoxicity and toxicology of Chemicals. Persistence of Chemicals in the Environment, Technical Report 90. Brussels, Belgium : s.n., 2003. ISSN: 0773-8072-90.

15. Wilson, M, Chia, D and Ehlers, B. Green Chemistry in California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and Innovation. California Policy Research Center. s.l. : California Policy Research Institute, 2006. p. 87.

16. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. TOXICOLOGICAL PROFILE FOR LEAD (2007). [Online] 2007. [Cited: December 8, 2017.]

17. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. TOXICOLOGICAL PROFILE FOR ASBESTOS. [Online] 2001. [Cited: December 8, 2017.]

18. Norén, K; Meironyté, DC. Certain organochlorine and organobromine contaminants in Swedish human milk in perspective of past 20-30 years. Chemosphere, 2000.