Asthma is a childhood disease that affects one in ten American children – and even higher proportions of black and Hispanic children.
Rates of the disease are on the rise: the number of people diagnosed grew by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009. Doctors don’t know why asthma is affecting more and more children. But they do know some of the things that trigger asthma attacks. These include smog and soot, diesel exhaust, and other components of outdoor air pollution. They also include chemicals in indoor air.
Chemicals that trigger asthma attacks are called “asthmagens.” Pediatricians often advise parents to remove these triggers such as pet dander and dust mites from the home to improve children’s health – but asthmagens are also common ingredients of many interior finishes, like floors, carpets, and paints.
Because we spend 90% of our time indoors, the asthmagens in indoor air can have an outsize affect on our health.
A new report from the Healthy Building Network identified twenty asthmagens in building materials that have high likelihood of occupant exposure. By cross-referencing several authoritative lists of asthmagens with a database of chemicals in building materials, the group was able to identify chemicals in foam insulation, paints, adhesives, floors, and carpets that are high priority asthmagens.
It breaks my heart to learn that the very materials we use to construct our indoor environments contain chemicals that trigger asthma attacks. But it also paves the way for better asthma prevention strategies. For many of these chemicals, healthier alternatives exist. As builders (and their clients) learn what to look for, ask about, and avoid, we can help children breathe fewer of these harmful chemicals.
I asked the Healthy Building Network whether LEED standards, developed by the US Green Building Council to rate green buildings, address asthmagens. The answer is, not really.
According to Bill Walsh, Executive Director of the Healthy Building Network, “LEED doesn’t (nor does it claim to) have any asthma-focused credits — whether for asthma inducing or asthma exacerbating chemicals.” LEED does have a standard for harmful Volatile Organic Compounds, known as VOCs.
But it may not be rigorous enough, or broad enough, to truly address triggers. LEED and other Indoor Air Quality certifications are designed to reduce occupant exposure to VOCs at concentration levels below those linked to cardiovascular, nervous system, or reproductive conditions. Since many VOCs may also exacerbate asthma, these certification systems have been used to address the disease. However, exposure levels for VOCs that protect against other diseases may not protect against asthma. Additionally, many asthmagens are not VOCs. This means that some asthmagens can be in products that have earned low VOC-emissions certifications.
Says Bill Walsh, “We are confident the science supports paying greater attention to asthmagens as a class in the building industry, and also supports precautionary action with regard to avoiding asthmagens in building materials.”