What building materials can be harmful to our health?

What building materials can be harmful to our health?

In each of our nostrils, two types of nerves play a vital role in our health. The olfactory and trigeminal nerves pick up odors and send information to the brain, specifically to the olfactory bulb, for interpretation. This in turn communicates with the cortex, responsible for the conscious perception of odors, but also with the limbic system, which controls mood and unconscious emotions. It is the body’s defense against bad smells or irritating or strong smells, creating an aversion to those that could harm us in some way.

But not all pollutants can be detected by this sophisticated system, and they have an intrinsic ability to positively or negatively influence our health. In fact, research has shown that the air quality can be quite poor and even worrisome in many indoor environments, where we spend around 90% of our lives. This is usually caused by inadequate ventilation of the space, external pollution and biological contaminants; but mainly chemical contaminants from internal sources. In other words, the construction materials used in the space. Therefore, some products should be avoided as much as possible.

Him, her and that / Davidson Rafailidis.  Image © Florian Holzherr
Him, her and that / Davidson Rafailidis. Image © Florian Holzherr

Talking about indoor air quality in buildings has never been a very popular topic, but it has gained more prominence recently, appearing in certifications and in product declarations. The term “sick building syndrome” (SBS) was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1982 and is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort that seem to be linked to the time spent in a building. Fatigue, headaches and dizziness are among the most common symptoms. When about 1/5 of the occupants complain of health problems related to staying indoors, the building is considered “sick”.

Pratisha Laska has a grim view of the matter: “Many building materials can contain chemicals of concern that can have short and long-term health effects. Short-term impacts can include skin allergy, eye irritation, throat irritation, and sneezing, while long-term impacts can include asthma, cancer, infertility, among others.

Redfern Warehouse / Ian Moore Architects.  Image © Rory Gardiner
Redfern Warehouse / Ian Moore Architects. Image © Rory Gardiner

Materials release chemicals through volatilization (when chemicals turn into gases and are released into the air); chemical degradation; abrasion (small particles are released); oxidation and leaching (dissolved in liquid and leached into soil and groundwater). An in-depth study has identified 55 chemicals used in construction that can harm health, but the main and most common are:


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Made up of microscopic fibers, asbestos has been used on several fronts in civil construction, such as roofs, water tanks, ceilings, thermal insulation, among others. It was used on the roof of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgaleire in Berlin, for example, replaced during the last renovation. Its use is prohibited in many countries because the fibers of the material, when ingested through the respiratory tract, can cause diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and several other types of cancer.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are emitted by a wide range of products, such as paints and varnishes, wallboard, tiles, furniture and even cleaning products, glues and adhesives, among others. These are substances that turn into gases when they come into contact with the atmosphere and their exposure can cause skin allergies, irritation of the eyes or the respiratory tract, headaches, even shortness of breath and loss of memory. . These can usually be felt through the sense of smell. Over long periods of exposure, volatile organic compounds can damage the liver and central nervous system.

Chromated copper arsenate

Wood preservative based on chromium, copper and arsenic metals, it is used to impregnate wooden parts, mainly by the autoclave technique. As this research highlights, CCA-treated wood products have a negative impact on the environment and human health, due to the leaching and accumulation of these metals, particularly arsenic, from the wood to the environment. Affected tissues can include the brain, lungs, liver, stomach, spleen, kidneys, and reproductive organs. In the United States, for example, the use of this preservative in playgrounds and other objects that may come into contact with people is prohibited.


In construction, lead is often used for roofs, cornices, tank liners and electrical conduit. It was also used in some paintings of old buildings. As this paper from the University of Washington points out, lead is a cumulative and persistent toxic substance that poses a serious health risk. When inhaled or ingested in excessive amounts, lead can affect the nervous system, reproductive system, blood, kidneys and cause digestive disorders, memory and concentration problems, muscle and joint pain.


Formaldehyde is a byproduct of combustion and other natural processes. It is found in many types of building materials, especially composite wood products and insulation materials. It is present, among other applications, in particle board, plywood and MDF. Its inhalation can cause irritation of the lungs, eyes, skin, nose and mucous membranes, as well as dermatitis, asthma and rhinitis. In this article, we explain how it is possible to keep your levels lower inside buildings.

In addition to these, there are many other components present in building materials that can pose health risks to occupants and, primarily, to those who handle them during construction. Knowledge of the potential risks of each material is essential so that managers can define the replacement of dangerous parts and avoid the specification of toxic materials. In addition to local legislation preventing the dissemination of potentially potent products, it is important to pay attention to materials with certifications such as HPD (Health Product Declaration) and EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) which will present detailed lists on the components of each and can guide you in choosing healthier products.