Building Materials and Health

I lost an uncle in October. Dean—everyone who knew him lovingly called him Deano—was more than just an uncle to my brothers and me as we were growing up. While the other adults were talking, Deano was playing with us kids in the yard or telling us jokes or stories that would help provide valuable lessons we would take into adulthood. Sometimes the stories were long-winded but we waited patiently for the punchline because Deano’s stories always made us laugh.

As Deano was dying of prostate cancer that had spread to his bones at the young age of 63, I sat at his bedside and held his hand. He used his remaining strength to breathily tell me stories to make me laugh rather than cry. I cursed cancer for unfairly and prematurely taking such a wonderful man away from all the people who love him.

I don’t know anyone whom cancer hasn’t touched in some way. According to the American Cancer Society, 585,720 Americans will die of cancer during 2014; that’s 1,600 people per day. In today’s era of modern medicine you would think that number wouldn’t be so great. I cannot help but speculate that it’s our modern lifestyles that are negatively impacting our health—everything from the food we eat, the air we breathe, to the materials we use to build and renovate our buildings. I think it’s naïve to believe the chemicals in our building materials are all safe, but I realize it’s also irresponsible to blindly substitute current chemicals with new ones that could cause even worse health and environmental effects in the future. So what do we do?

In this issue’s “Trend Alert”, Robert Nieminen, retrofit’s editor at large, writes how material and human health are rapidly encouraging market transformation. According to Nieminen, “Product and furniture manufacturers are responding to increased demand by specifiers to disclose the genetic make-up, so to speak, of their offerings so that the relationship between buildings and the effect they have on the occupants who work, learn, live and heal within them can be more clearly understood and improved.”

To help ease the process, several established organizations have formed the Harmonization Task Group, which was partially funded by a $3 million grant the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council received from Google to support the Material Ingredients credit in LEED v4. The task group intends to make it easier for manufacturers to examine and optimize their products for human and environmental health.

Although it has only been around for 18 months at press time, the Harmonization Task Group already is making strides in consistent messaging and streamlining processes for manufacturers to identify and disclose their materials’ make-up.

Cancer may not be eradicated in my lifetime but I would like to see some of the unknown causes identified and eliminated. If chemicals in certain building materials are, in fact, a contributor to cancer, then I applaud the Harmonization Task Group for taking on the challenge of driving market transformation.

For my Uncle Deano and for anyone you know who has been affected by cancer, supporting the Harmonization Task Group’s efforts is the least we can do.

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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