Material Health

Have you ever walked into a freshly painted room and noticed that unique smell radiating of the walls, or sat in a brand new car and come down with a sudden headache because of the smell. These odors that you are detecting are Volatile Organic chemicals. They are the result of chemical processing during the manufacturing of materials. When materials cure or dry the off gassing that is occurring is leaching VOC’s into the air. I am not going to list the plethora of harmful effects that this off gassing has the human body ill just say it’s bad. Off gassing is an issue that we should all be aware of because it happens all around us. In our homes carpet fibers are mostly nylon fibers bound together with a polypropylene backing that hold the carpet together. Once installed this new carpet will continue to cure or dry emitting harmful VOC’s like styrene and 4-phenylcyclohexane coming from the latex backing that is found in 95 percent of carpet. The adhesives that are also used to hold the carpet to the ground are most commonly benzene and toluene, which emit some of the strongest and most harmful VOC’s.

As some readers might be thinking that new carpet or new car smell goes away after time so that must mean that the off gassing has stopped. As an article written by the Ecology Center states that carpet’s off gassing can occur for five years or more after installation. To make matters worse incorporating a drop ceiling that utilizes pores materials, which can absorb the VOCs and reemit them into air. The combination of cheep synthetic carpet and drop ceiling systems are both ubiquitous building practices in office building. While this is done to initially save money on construction and lessen the amount of energy needed to heat the building it is causing a loss in productivity from workers. Building sickness syndrome is defined by the E.P.A. as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified”. By saving money through the use of unsafe building material companies are actually costing themselves money in the long run. Workers who are sick and consistently absent are not going to be extremely efficient. A study done by Guberan et al in Switzerland saw a noticeable increase in the number of absences recorded in a group of workers who moved from a naturally ventilated building into a mechanically ventilated building that was essentially recycling the air contaminated by VOCs.

Materials have a massive effect on the health of the people who come into contact with them. This can have a major effect on how people view or interact within a building. The façade and interior may be spiritually enlightening and aesthetically pleasing, but if it make the occupants sick the effort put into the design was meaningless. Although some of these safer materials have a higher upfront cost in the long run the benefits that they yield out weigh the upfront cost.


One comment

  1. slett109

    As someone who works around VOC’s all of the time, I can confirm that these possibly have very harmful chemicals. I cannot comment on building materials themselves, as I am not that knowledgeable about them, but what I do have experience with is paint. I have worked in a paint shop for going on 5 years now, and it seems that people and companies have realized that VOC’s are actually harmful and are trying to remake them into something that is less harmful.
    With the redevelopment of paint, we as consumers have seen the expiration of oil based paint. One thing that many older painter say is the “You can’t get oil base anymore? But it was such a good paint!” This is true. Oil base paint is and was the most durable finish, and some companies still make it. But with advancements in latex paint, and with a new knowledge of how to be environmentally friendly, latex paints are just as good, if not better in quality of product, durability, how it performs, how long it lasts, and how it looks.
    Even some latex paints have VOC’s in them, but some products are working to eliminate them all together. Some paints, such as Dutch Boy Refresh paint is completely Zero VOC and it is made with arm and hammer baking soda to absorb odors. It is a very durable product, but without the harmful affects of a normal industrial paint. Other paints are also going towards eliminating VOC’s altogether. Chemically it is a hard process, because the chemicals that make the VOC’s in paint are what give it its durability, and performance.
    Hopefully more products are being researched to lessen the health impacts on humans and the environment, and the more companies that jump on board, the better for all of us.

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