KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

May 28 2010

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The case for non-toxic buildings

Why we should stop using known cancer-causing chemicals now

I find it difficult to write about anything except the Gulf Oil Spill. In fact, I started writing about it only to find there was nothing hopeful to say. Obviously, the story is still unfolding, but it is clear this will be the worst environmental disaster in history. If any good comes from it, it will be a radical rethinking of how we view our relationship to oil, drilling and energy. And I am still not sure why the people who spilled the oil are in charge of the cleanup.

I do know that oil “spill” is too timid a word for such a disaster. I am currently leaning toward calling it an oil “transfusion.” For some wonderful coverage on the oil spill, I strongly encourage you to look at this incredible infographic on the spill.

PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

In addition, the Big Picture has an incredible archive of images from the spill.

This site allows you to compare the size of the oil spill to your city or state. You’ll notice how the spill is larger than the entire state of Connecticut.

While I will reserve my words about the spill for a few more weeks and once the full impact is known, it has gotten me thinking more and more about our toxicity on our environment. After all, the Earth itself is a self-contained system. We don’t make new water, new mass or new energy. Everything here on Earth has always been here. Speaking from a Physics standpoint, all we do is transform things from one state to another. Matter into energy, energy into matter.

The systems of Nature have evolved to a perfect balance. We call this balance “environmental equilibrium.” From this balance we get the services that Nature provides: filtering our air, cleaning our water and absorbing our waste. Unfortunately, mankind’s impact on the planet has overwhelmed these systems. The planet simply cannot keep up. If we “toxify” the planet, we have no other alternatives.

I used to think that Cigarette Manufacturers were evil. After all, they were selling things they knew to be dangerous and full of cancer-causing chemicals. For years, they denied it, dragged their feet and funded lobbyists to stall legislation.

But are architects, designers or builders any better?

We specify products that require you to wear gloves and a mask during installation. We line the floors, walls and ceilings with products we know contain nasty chemicals. In fact, the entire painting industry knows its products are bad for us. Paints contain chemicals called “Volatile Organic Compounds” or VOCs. Why do you think that every major paint manufacturer is now offering at least a “low-VOC” version of the product?

Where are the gloves and masks for the people who stay behind and have to live and work in these buildings? When I ask manufacturers about this, they defend their products. Unlike cigarettes, you cannot point to the formaldehyde in that one piece of furniture and say that was the cause of your cancer. But the collective exposure to thousands of chemicals in your home and office all contribute to your cancer risk. Although the death rate for cancer has dropped, thanks to early detection and treatment, the incidences of cancer continue to climb.

We spend 80-90 percent of our time indoors. We spend another five percent in our cars, and apparently, we hate going outside and hate fresh air. Asthma rates have tripled in adults since 1980. In children, whose developing lungs are not as strong, asthma has gone from the seventh leading chronic illness, to number one in less than 20 years. The poor quality of the indoor air is largely responsible for this staggering increase.

The quality of the indoor air in your home is likely to contain more than 10 times the number of toxic pollutants as the air outdoors. During a painting project, that number can increase to 1,000 times that of outdoor levels. By switching to healthy finishes containing low or zero VOCs, you can greatly improve indoor air quality and remove some major health risks for you and your family.

If you’re wondering where to start, target the two biggest sources of poor indoor air quality: VOCs and formaldehyde.

By choosing healthier finishes, unneeded chemicals and toxins are prevented from entering our air, land and water. Making the simple change to a healthy paint will reduce some of the 69 million gallons of harmful chemical paints that end up in our nation’s landfills each year.

People with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) or a severe sensitivity to chemicals will want to avoid placing formaldehyde in their home. Formaldehyde is used as a glue in most wood products. MCS sufferers will likely develop dizziness, headaches and sneezing from formaldehyde exposure.

The California Air Resources Board has reported that one in 10,000 Californians will develop cancer from exposure to formaldehyde. Since it is a “sensitizer,” exposure to formaldehyde can actually make you more sensitive to other chemicals. When buying any new wood cabinets or furniture, demand formaldehyde-free products. By not bringing new formaldehyde into your home, you’ll reduce the grave risks for you and your family.

Why specify toxic materials at all? Simply because they’re cheap? Doing so makes us as guilty as those cigarette manufacturers.

Eric Corey Freed is an architect and author of four books, including Green$ense for the Home.

This entry was posted on Friday, May 28th, 2010 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Green, Products. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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