To buy a house? UM research identifies 55 hazardous chemicals in building materials


The next time you buy a new home, you might consider waiting a few weeks before moving in.

Many of the chemicals in a home’s building materials — in the smell of new carpet, the chalky smell of newly laid drywall, and newly refinished floors — might not be good for your health.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have identified 55 chemicals of concern found in walls, floors, ceilings and furniture in homes across the United States, some of which have concentrations 1,000 times higher than recommended.

Among the worst offenders was formaldehyde, which is often included in wooden furniture, base cabinets, and wood, cork, and bamboo flooring. Formaldehyde is considered carcinogenic and has also been linked to leukemia.

The researchers also found that butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), an antioxidant found in carpet flooring, has an actual content 800 times higher than recommended. And the content of hexamethylene diisocyanate, present in the carpets, was thousands of times higher than the maximum recommended content of 0.2 ppm. According to the EPA, hexamethylene diisocyanate is extremely irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat, and long-term, chronic exposure to hexamethylene diisocyanate can cause lung problems.

The researchers say they hope the results will provide practitioners and manufacturers with actionable information to develop more sustainable products, and will also raise consumer awareness.

“People are inside buildings more than 90% of their time, breathing in and touching these chemicals in building materials, so it’s very important to know if there are any harmful chemicals that could affect their health. “said the first author of the study, Lei Huang, a researcher. specialist in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UM’s School of Public Health.

To assess potential human exposures and risks, researchers examined more than 500 unique combinations of chemicals from chemical composition data reported in the Pharos Project database. They then used a risk assessment approach to determine the amount of chemicals used in construction products, the corresponding human exposure, and the carcinogenic and non-cancer risks associated with the chemicals. Finally, they listed the chemicals from most to least concern based on their “hazard content ratios.”

Although the researchers acknowledge that the study has some limitations as a high-throughput screen covering a large number of compounds – exposure rates can vary widely, for example – they say the study clearly demonstrates the need for further research. on exposures to chemicals in building materials and the need for additional regulation to ensure the safety of chemicals in products in general and in building products in particular.

“These results show that a significant number of combinations of chemicals used in building materials pose a risk to human occupants,” said lead author Olivier Jolliet, professor of environmental health sciences at the School of UM public health. “We need to get rid of some of these compounds that are sometimes 1,000 times too high.”

“We typically use 30,000 of these compounds daily, but we only have reasonably good data for 2,000 of them. So even if we say a chemical should be disposed of, we often have no idea what is being used to replace it. Is it really better or could it be worse? “, did he declare. Our USEtox model provides a tool for manufacturers to evaluate and verify various alternatives.

Jolliet said he was concerned about levels of formaldehyde in buildings and that it continued to be commonly used despite its well-known carcinogenic effects, even at low levels. He said that because the substance is highly volatile, allowing new construction to air out would likely help reduce its concentrations significantly.

Huang, who is from China, said the United States lags behind other countries in regulations and consumer awareness of the dangers of certain chemicals in building materials.

“In China, we are very aware of these harmful chemicals,” she said. “When they buy a house, people wait three or four months to move in. In the US, people don’t care and there’s actually less regulation in the US than in Europe.”

The research was carried out in close collaboration with the Technical University of Denmark and the United Nations and is part of a project on “Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues” as part of the strategic approach of the Environment for International Chemicals Management (SAICM). Other authors included Amélie Ritscher, individual entrepreneur with the United Nations Environment Program in Geneva, Switzerland; and Professor Peter Fantke in the Department of Technology, Management and Economics at the Technical University of Denmark.

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