We all spend a majority of our lifetime indoors, but have you ever thought about whether or not the spaces where you live, work, and play are affecting your long-term health? How safe are our interior environments? What are we breathing in and exposing ourselves to on a daily basis? What is that wicked new paint colour you chose off-gassing into the air? These are questions that, in my opinion, do not get asked nearly often enough.
There are so many elements and systems that make up the buildings we live in, but how much thought is put into how healthy all of these materials are for the occupants? Usually these decisions are based on functionality, durability, aesthetic appeal, and cost. And although these are all very important decision-making factors, unfortunately the potential long-term effects on occupant health are rarely a consideration.
Some of the biggest culprits when it comes to interior pollution are the items you'd never think of, such as the flooring, wallpaper, paint, furniture, and even cabinetry. Not to mention the building materials you can't see, such as asbestos insulation or particleboard containing formaldehyde. It's scary to think about all of these things existing in the built environment, that all contribute to the pollution of the air we breathe on a day to day basis. What's even scarier is that most of these indoor air pollutants are unnoticeable, and their effects on the body are relatively minor. However, the real problem exists when prolonged exposure causes these toxins to build up over time in the body's tissues, resulting in devastating health problems later in life. This is an example of a phenomenon known as 'Sick Building Syndrome', an accumulation of various health problems and diseases that can all be linked back to exposure to an unhealthy built environment.
Pretty terrifying stuff right!? So what can we do about it?
Well, the first step to solving any problem is first identifying the cause. Once this has been accomplished, you can start considering solutions. Some problems like old oil paint off-gassing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's) can be solved with a sealing primer to block emissions and covered with a no VOC latex paint. Some issues like asbestos mitigation or black mold removal require more extensive work, but are worth addressing. Whether you're renovating or building new, it is always beneficial to make health-conscious choices moving forward in order to invest in your future. Look for products made from natural materials with little to no added chemicals, and pay attention to certifications like 'Greenseal', 'Greenguard', 'Red list free', 'Declare label', and 'VOC-free'.
Now that you are more aware of the potential dangers lurking in buildings, you can start making smarter, heath-conscious decisions moving forward. Always do your research and don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. It is much harder to rectify a brand new hardwood floor that's off-gassing chemicals, than to have done the research at the outset and installed a healthier flooring material in the beginning. Talk to your design team and your contractor about your concerns, and ensure your team is acting in the best interest of long-term occupant health.
Although we cannot change the past, we certainly have the ability to start making better decisions regarding interior air quality here and now. The next time you consider a renovation or new build, be sure to think about the negative heath effects of conventional buildings, and how your actions today can change that. If we all work towards creating healthier buildings moving forward, imagine the difference we can make both now and for the future generations to come?
Something worth thinking about!