A newly released report by the US Department of Health and Human Services shows that three very common building materials have now been added to the cancer list. Among the 8 chemicals that were added to the list are some that are in most of our buildings — formaldehyde was bumped up to be a known cause of cancer and styrene and certain insulation fibers are now officially suspected carcinogens. So with this new information in hand, what products should we worry about most? Read on as we dig into the report to see what the real health impacts can be.
The chemicals listed by the HHS report include materials “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens” such as cobalt carbide-tungston used in tools, the fungicide Captafol, the synthetic dye Ortho-Nitrotoluene, and the plant extract Riddelliine. Along with formaldehyde, Aristolochic acid found in some herbal medications is determined to cause cancer . What caught our eye was that three of these materials are typically found in most of our homes.
The most common of those is formaldehyde, the ubiquitous and cheap binding agent loaded with VOCs used in many laminate boards, paints and solvents, synthetic fibers, plastics – and the list goes on. The official determination that formaldehyde is not just an irritant but actually carcinogenic should set off alarm bells throughout the building and design industry. Programs like Green Guard make it a lot easier nowadays to find safe products so there is no longer an excuse to introduce formaldehyde into our homes, workplaces and schools.
Two very common home insulation products were also bumped up to the “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen” level but may not be quite as bad as first glance. Some fibrous insulation products like common fiberglass insulation are now suspects. The fibers can lodge into the lungs and over time cause cancer. The more durable or higher quality the fiber insulation, the more risky it is as it stays in the body longer, so cheap residential-grade fiberglass is not reported to be as significant a concern. The biggest risk by far is for construction workers who are exposed to high levels of the airborne fibers.
The other insulation product, Styrofoam, or bead board made from styrene, also used in pipes and carpet backing, can off-gas and cause cancer according to limited studies. Because the material is gaining much attention as we are making homes with higher insulation levels, those who work with the material on a regular basis are the most at risk.
While the use of these two materials for building will probably remain common, the best way to make sure they do not affect our indoor air quality is to seal interiors properly and mechanically ventilate buildings sufficiently. The added bonus is an environment clear of other pollutants and a much lower energy bill. In the meantime there are still thousands of chemicals we are exposed to that have not even been tested for their health effects.
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