(CN) — Many materials used to construct “green” housing can expose residents to dangerous indoor air pollution, according to a study that examines how toxic chemicals are introduced to seemingly environmentally friendly homes.
Indoor air quality is a concern in housing development, particularly in low-income and minority communities, as research has shown that units in these communities often have higher levels of pollutants.
The report, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Institute, offers insight into how building materials featuring such hazardous substances, as well as certain personal items, expose residents to health problems that may include hormone disruption, lower IQ and cancer.
“Most buildings aren’t designed with people’s health in mind,” said lead author Robin Dodson, an environmental exposure scientist at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. “Yet, indoor air pollution can lead to a range of health problems.”
To identify the primary culprits of such pollution, the team collected air and dust samples inside newly renovated subsidized housing in Boston, which were redeveloped to meet certain green standards. The researchers collected samples before and after residents moved in.
“This is the first study to look at air pollutants pre- and post-occupancy, allowing us to really hone in on the sources,” Dodson said.
The team tested for nearly 100 chemicals, including formaldehyde, pesticides, flame retardants, fragrances and phthalates — substances that have been associated with numerous health problems.
After comparing pre- and post-occupancy samples, the researchers identified several chemicals that appeared to originate from the building, including two flame retardants: tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TCIPP) and tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TCDIPP). The researchers believe these substances may have been added to the insulation.
To their surprise, the team also found multiple chemicals coming from the building that are typically used in personal care products. These include benzophenone (BP) and benzophenone-3 (BP-3), which are found in sunscreen. The researchers also detected di-butyl phthalate (DBP), a chemical used in nail polish and perfumes.
“We certainly didn’t expect to see that,” Dodson said. “It’s possible these chemicals are being added to paints or floor finishes.”
The makeup of the units’ indoor air changed once residents moved in, including significant increases in levels of triclosan — an antimicrobial used in soaps and toothpaste — and phthalates, which are added to plastics, vinyl and personal care products.
The team also detected higher levels of fragrances used in personal care and cleaning products, and flame retardants found in furniture. This shows that residents’ personal belongings and behaviors also affect the air inside their units.
Several chemicals that have been banned or phased out were found, including the flame retardant 2,2′,4,4′- tetrabromodiphenyl ether (BDE 47), which was found post-occupancy. Phased out in 2005 due to health concerns, BDE 47 is a component of a flame retardant mixture commonly known as PentaBDE. The chemical is present in older furniture. Diazinon and propoxur, pesticides that were banned from residential use in 2004 and 2007, respectively, were also found inside the units.
Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, was detected in all units, apparently coming from the residents and from the building. The volume of formaldehyde exceeded risk-based screening levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Several other chemicals were also above screening levels, according to the study.
“These results are extremely informative,” said John Kane, senior program coordinator for the Boston Housing Authority. “We’re committed to creating housing that is not only safe and affordable, but also healthy, and this study will help support our efforts toward achieving that goal.”
Dodson said the findings could be used to develop new strategies for improving air quality in similar housing projects and other developments. She noted that consumers can limit their exposure to dangerous chemicals by using products without them.
“But the onus shouldn’t be on them,” Dodson said. “People living in public housing don’t have as much control over their building, and we know from this study that the building is an important source of exposure to harmful chemicals.”
Dodson said that green building standards should be expanded to include other hazardous chemicals, and that such changes are particularly important following natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which require massive rebuilding projects.
“We should use these opportunities to get things right the first time by using safer, and healthier, materials that won’t make people sick,” she said.