by IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub,

Chemicals used in building materials can be a major passive emission source indoors, leading to the deterioration of indoor environmental quality and the emergence of “sick building syndrome.” Chemicals are used in building materials such as flooring, drywalls, and ceiling panels, and serve as plasticizers, flame retardants, adhesives, stabilizers, and preservatives/biocides.

study, the findings of which were published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, sought to screen the various chemicals used in building materials for potential near-field human exposures and related health risks, identifying chemicals and products of concern to inform risk reduction efforts.

The study proposes a model for predicting chemical emissions from building materials considering indoor sorption (a process by which a substance is absorbed into another substance).The study undertook a screening-level human exposure assessment for chemicals in building materials, starting from product chemical composition data reported in the Pharos building products database for the US. Health risks and chemical contents from high-throughput screening (a rapid screening process) were determined, combining exposure estimates with toxicity information. Exposures were estimated for more than 300 unique chemical-product combinations from the Pharos databases. Fifty-five substances were identified as chemicals of high concern, underscoring the need for more refined investigations to select safer alternatives. 

The study proposes a high throughput screening (a rapid screening process) approach for estimating emissions and related exposures and risks for a range of organic chemicals in building materials to inform further research and development.

The study focuses on four objectives, namely to:

  • characterize the product usage and chemical content in commonly used building materials;
  • develop a modeling method that considers indoor sorption to predict chemical concentration evolutions in building materials and related chemical emissions;
  • estimate multi-pathway human exposures for building occupants for hundreds of chemical building product combinations; and
  • screen and prioritize human health risks to identify products and chemicals of concern, and to determine maximum chemical contents.

The study focuses on adults, as their exposure and risk estimates are more accurate and stable over the lifetime of building materials. The study suggests inhalation is the dominant exposure route, followed by dermal intake, while dust ingestion is negligible. Although overestimates can occur, the study states that more refined investigations are warranted for the chemicals identified with very high risks.

This study was funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) project on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under UN Environment’s Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). [Publication Landing Page]