Hidden dangers: Our communities’ buildings turn toxic when they burn
Last year was the deadliest, most destructive wildfire season ever recorded in California. This – and the ongoing fight against climate change – has been a wake-up call for municipal leaders, code officials, and local public health leaders to look at sustainability, human health and equity issues related to the built environment and emergency response.
A few unexpected issues have arisen. Among them are concerns related to buildings materials widely considered healthy and sustainable, that actually release toxic gases and particulates when burned. Many of these products are in wide use, and as municipal leaders seek to encourage the use of construction methods and products that do the least harm over their entire lifespan, they must now consider not only home dwellers and building occupants but also the impacts on firefighters and first responders, manufacturing workers, and other vulnerable frontline community members.
As many municipal leaders are finding, there is still much to be done to make the green building industry healthy and equitable for all.
Consider this: Construction methods and health policy have improved dramatically in terms of transparency and providing research tools, and city and county leaders should be encouraging their use. Material safety data sheets, Declare labels, and Health Product Declarations help building code officials and health policymakers determine what chemicals-of-concern may be present in building materials commonly used in their jurisdictions. The consequences of these problematic chemicals are magnified in a fire, permanently affecting citizens and the environment. Fortunately, officials can find free online tools such as Mindful Materials and Sustainable Minds that tap into huge product databases by material type and manufacturer.
As for where to start, the most problematic building materials contain harmful or Red List chemicals and substances such as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs), halogenated flame retardants, formaldehyde, phthalates and more. Energy saving insulation for homes and commercial buildings often contain many Red List substances that emit hazardous fumes during fires. Other challenging materials include adhesives, many cleaning products, fireproofing, and many plastics including, most notably, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polystyrene.
The public is not only exposed to these through the air, but also through exposure to ground and water pollution. In the most recent wildfires in Santa Rosa, for example, some PVC pipes that transported drinking water to homes melted, and carcinogens such as methylene chloride and benzene, known carcinogens, showed up in drinking water quality testing.
Time is of essence for municipal leaders, code officials, and local health leaders to take a more holistic approach to sustainability – which means understanding the risks that certain materials pose when they are inevitably disturbed or destroyed, either during a catastrophic event such as a fire, an earthquake, or simply demolition and disposal. Zooming out one step further, local leaders must communicate how the products communities take for granted impact both ends of their life cycle: Frontline communities of color and other disadvantaged groups are statistically much more likely to live or work next to a plant or dump affected by chemicals of concern. Some factory workers have higher rates of cancers and other diseases, too – as do firefighters and first responders.
Not only should communities protect those in close proximity to the manufacturing facilities, they should also consider the health of manufacturing workers who create carpeting, piping, insulation and finishes. Regulations need to reflect the chemical toxins these constituents are exposed to, and their associated risks. A startling statistic: Regulations regarding manufacturing workers allow for 27 times higher exposure to formaldehyde than what is recommended in current green building standards for homeowner occupants and building end-users.
These worries arise well before buildings are built, used and demolished. Policymakers can’t afford to just look at building materials from the end-user perspective anymore. The whole life cycle illuminates the many lives impacted along the way.
Good news is coming, however. New municipal buildings like the Santa Monica City Services Building (SMCS) currently under construction, offer a model for a more proactive, people-first approach to sustainability and health. The first municipal building ever to seek the Living Building Challenge certification, known as the strictest sustainability standard globally, SMCS has been designed to eliminate all Red List chemicals from its components. The 50,000-square-foot building houses over 250 city functionaries, and the sustainability experts at BuroHappold worked to ensure that every product used – from duct liners, pumps and pipes to paint and finishes – would be free of halogenated flame retardants, formaldehyde, and phthalates. The project’s materials champions – including passionate team members from the CIty of Santa Monica, the architect Frederick Fisher and Partners and contractor Hathaway Dinwiddie, and myself – reached out directly to manufacturers to ascertain every products’ contents, and advocated for alternatives even when there seemed to be none.
The Santa Monica City Services Building illustrates that change can come in powerful ways. But not every project must be Living Building Challenge certified: Municipalities just need to care about healthy materials and their long-range effects. For city and county leaders, that means getting informed on the healthy building movement. Studying the Living Building Challenge and WELL certification systems will create experts in city hall on building materials, regulations and lifespan toxicity.
Local managers and legislators can do even more to advance sustainability and healthy building. If our regional governments back healthy materials, products and supply chains at every scale, informed citizens and suppliers will join the cause, too. Let’s increase momentum in transforming the materials marketplace — because building fires, earthquakes and climate change are here to stay, but toxic chemicals don’t have to be a part of our living future, too.
Kathleen Hetrick, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C, EcoDistricts AP, is a senior sustainability engineer at BuroHappold Engineering, with experience in a wide range of cutting-edge projects across all scales. Her most recent project work includes coordinating the Living Building Challenge process for the Santa Monica City Services Building, and implementing human and environmental health frameworks for schools, museums, laboratories, and workplaces across California.