Newly renovated low-income housing units in Boston earned awards for green design and building but flunked indoor air-quality tests, a new study shows.
Researchers found potentially carcinogenic levels of toxic chemicals in the remodeled homes before and after residents moved in. All of the 30 eco-friendly homes in the study had risky indoor air concentrations for at least one chemical.
“Even in green buildings, building materials contain chemicals that we’re concerned about from a health perspective,” said lead author Robin Dodson, a researcher at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts.
“We should not only think about the efficiency of the building but the health of the building,” she said in a phone interview.
The hazards seemed to come both from materials used to renovate the housing units as well as from occupants’ furnishings and personal-care products, the study found.
“Synthetic chemicals are ubiquitous in modern life,” said co-author Gary Adamkiewicz, an environmental health professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
“They’re in new housing, old housing, green housing, conventional housing and high- and low-income housing,” he said by email.
As reported in Environment International, Dodson, Adamkiewicz and colleagues collected air and dust samples from 10 renovated units before occupancy and from 27 units one to nine months after residents moved in between July 2013 and January 2014.
By testing the homes before and after they were occupied, investigators were able to trace the presence of nearly 100 chemicals with known or suspected health concerns to the renovation, the residents or a combination.
Both before and after occupancy, all the tested units had indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s cancer-based screening level.
The researchers expected formaldehyde, which has been associated with allergy and asthma, might leach out of building materials, and they found evidence that it did. But because formaldehyde emissions remained high after occupancy, the research team suspected that residents also brought formaldehyde in personal-care products.
Researchers also believe that flame retardants, which are suspected of causing cancer and diminishing male fertility, had been added to the building insulation.
To their surprise, they found chemicals used in sunscreen, nail polish and perfumes being emitted from building materials, possibly because they had been added to paint or floor finishes, Dodson said.
Residents appear to have brought into the renovated homes a number of health-disturbing chemicals, including antimicrobials, flame retardants, plastics and fragrances.
Flame retardant BDE-47, which appeared after residents moved in, has been banned since 2005. Dodson assumes residents carried the compound into their homes, possibly in second-hand furniture.
Consumers could improve household air quality by using products free of fragrance and other seemingly innocuous but harmful ingredients, Dodson said. But the onus should not be on consumers, she said.
“Why are manufacturers even allowed to use these chemicals in their products?” she said.
Green building standards should be broadened to prohibit use of hazardous chemicals, she said.
Tom Lent, policy director of the nonprofit Healthy Building Network in Berkeley, California, said the study provides important clues about which hazardous chemicals are being released from building materials so that green buildings can be constructed to be both energy-efficient and healthy.
“There does not need to be a conflict,” Lent, who was not involved with the study, said in an email.
But the conflict between energy-efficient building and the need to reduce toxic indoor air emissions has existed for 15 years, Asa Bradman said by email. Bradman, associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley, was not involved with the study.
Adamkiewicz recently completed another study that suggests green buildings can be healthy, or at least healthier, he said.
He studied families who moved from old, conventional housing to new, green public housing units in Boston. The new buildings were designed to save energy and reduce exposures to indoor pollutants.
In the green units, adults wheezed and coughed less and suffered fewer headaches, he found, and children missed fewer school days and had fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations.