The Air We Breathe in Buildings

Updated: May 5, 2021

Our daily lives are exposed to environmental pollutants that pose some degree of risk, sometimes unavoidable. Some risk we choose to accept because there is no choice. Some risks we can avoid because we have information and can make informed decisions. According to the Center for Disease Control, people spend about 90% of the time indoors, increasing the risk of health issues due to indoor air pollutants. Scientific research evidence indicates that the indoor air can have more pollutants than outdoor air. Thus, the health of spaces is rapidly gaining attention due to the increasing negative health and mental impacts.

“Walking into a modern building can sometimes be compared to placing your head inside a plastic bag that is filled with toxic fumes.”

John Bower

Founder, Healthy House Institute

The CDC groups the indoor pollutants as biological and chemicals. For the most part the biological pollutants come from pets, insects, environmental conditions, and accumulation of mold, viruses, and bacteria. On the other group, the chemical irritants can come from gases, fumes, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), pesticides, and toxic materials. Toxins in materials and products should be an important consideration when designing and building a new space, buying a home, furnishing and decorating. Because everything in our spaces from lighting to paints, caulking, and other sealants, to flooring, wiring, and insulation, can pour toxins into the air you breathe. These toxins can mimic hormones, disrupt fetal development, cause allergies and asthma and even cause cancer.

What is being done to address the toxins issue?

Healthier material standards

In an effort to address the increasing health concerns associated with toxins in building materials and products, there are a number of organizations providing guidance for suppliers and manufacturers to screen and assess material formulas and optimize when risks and hazards are present. Some of the most robust methods to screen and assess materials are the Cradle to Cradle Products Certification, The Pharos tool, UL Greenguard, Green Screen, The Health Product Declaration, Declare, The Living Well challenge, and Safer Choice to name a few.

The ultimate goals of these organizations is to make buildings, homes and spaces safer and healthier for occupants, reducing the risk and hazards of chemical toxins by setting standards that industry can follow. In the end, the manufacturers that have checked their products’ formulas can innovate with safer alternatives and can be recognized with a label or certificate/certification or declaration that their clients or the end consumer can see. It is important that as consumers we identify the healthier choices that are available at building material depots, supermarkets, etc. That is why eco labels play an important role in purchasing decisions. At the same time programs that are business oriented should be followed by builders but if you as a building occupant are curious to know what is done at the design and construction level, then the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -LEED certification will cover a whole building including the health of materials.

As consumers we can’t control everything but there can be opportunities to make more informed choices when buying a new home, remodeling, furnishing, decorating, and buying cleaning products. Prefer products with eco-labels because they have been checked and optimized; ask builders/contractors to select safer choices as much as possible and check on the product reviews online. Be smart when buying consumer products because there are harmful ingredients for you and the surfaces. For instance bleach and ammonia. Even products listed as natural can contain irritants, read, investigate the ingredients and make informed decisions.

Last, trust nature! Plants are a fantastic inexpensive solution to improve one’s health by helping purify indoor air quality, plus, reducing energy consumption and improving the aesthetics of any space. Here are five plants that can improve indoor air quality (source

  1. Gerbera Daisy - It thrives in moderate indoor light.

  2. Rubber Plant - Removes formaldehyde from the air but it keep away from pets.

  3. Snake Plant - Powerful air-cleaning plant that doesn’t require a green thumb to care for.

  4. Bamboo Palm - Great for apartments or your office. As a bonus, they are safe for pets!

  5. Aloe-Vera - Filter your air and the gel inside is a natural soother for cuts and burns.

Whether you are a green advocate or not, stand up for your health, making informed choices, and holding others accountable for the decisions that can affect your safety & health.

by Ana Leal on January 26 2021

About AMLY Sustainability

Consulting services applying analytical methods to measure the environmental impacts of products and materials to help designers and manufacturers reduce their product’s impacts. AMLY Sustainability provides hazard screening services for building products as a member of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative.


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