Toxicity in Architectural Plastics: Life-Cycle Index of Human Health in Building (LCI-HHB)

Toxicity in Architectural Plastics: Life-Cycle Index of Human Health in Building (LCI-HHB)

Franca Trubiano (University of Pennsylvania, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 29
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2426-8.ch004

Abstract

The building industry lacks a holistic and integrated method for assessing the possible human health risks attendant to using materials that have been verified as toxic. In particular, it lacks an open-source, interactive interface for measuring the health risks associated with sourcing, manufacturing, selecting, installing, using, maintaining, and disposing of building-based polymers. Because of their high degree of chemical synthesis, polymers are typically more toxic than wood, glass, or concrete; yet architects, engineers, builders, clients, and the general public remain poorly informed about the deadly accumulation of synthetic polymers that originate in the building industry and that pervade our air, water, and bodies. This question should be central to the very definition and practice of life-cycle assessment, and this chapter outlines a process for developing an industry-based life-cycle index of human health in building (LCI-HHB). After all, traditional LCAs are of little help to anyone not healthy enough to enjoy them.
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Diagnosing The Problem

The AEC Industry: Uniformed, Negligent, or Missing in Action?

The Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry is substantially in support of Life-Cycle Assessments (LCA) and increasingly aware of the very real costs of embodied energy, operational energy, and carbon emissions that contribute to the production of greenhouse gases and the devastating effects of climate change. It has largely embraced LCA methods and metrics, having attributed an important role to environmental accountability and sustainability certification programs such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED-USGBC), and rating systems such as the Living Building Challenge (International Living Future Institute), and Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES). However, the same AEC industry has failed to integrate questions of human health in how it conceptualizes and calculates a building’s Life-Cycle.

The building industry lacks a holistic and integrated method for assessing the possible human health risks attendant to using materials that have been verified as toxic. In particular, it lacks an open-source, interactive interface for measuring the health risks associated with sourcing, manufacturing, selecting, installing, using, maintaining, and disposing of building-based polymers. Indeed, the ubiquitous use of plastics in architectural design and construction rarely acknowledges the serious environmental and health risks posed by all forms of polymer products derived from petroleum, coal, and natural gas. For well over fifty years, the majority of building products have been re-engineered to include polymers in order to achieve a range of advanced performance metrics. Even wood, the most ‘natural’ of materials, is widely manipulated using cold-cured synthetic resin glues for increasing its structural strength and moisture resistance. The current trend of building with cross-laminated timber (CLT) is only possible because of the availability of polymers such as melamine, Phenol-Resorcinal-Formaldehyde, and other resorcinol-based resins (woodproducts.fi). Moreover, polyvinyl chloride is yet another polymer used ubiquitously in plumbing supplies, exterior sheathing, interior surfaces, furniture, and landscaping. Indeed, nearly everything in our built environment is permeated by chemicals derived from fossil fuels. And yet, despite their unrestricted proliferation, very little data is freely disclosed about the potential health risks associated with using large quantities of plastics in the building industry.

Not only do most polymers exhibit elevated levels of embodied energy per material weight, but their high degree of chemical synthesis also makes them vastly more likely to be toxic than wood, glass, or concrete. Synthetic rubbers or elastomers, for example, have an embodied energy count of 110 Mj/Kg, whereas concrete’s is but 1.9 Mj/Kg (Your Home Australia), and while it might be the case that a far greater amount of concrete is used in a building than rubber, close to fourteen billion tons of synthetic rubber are produced each year (Siemens, 2013); all of which, in one way or another, makes its way into the built environment, and all of which is typically sourced using natural gas, petroleum, coal, or hydrocarbons. The concern this poses for human health is significant.

Why, therefore, are architects, engineers, builders, clients, and the general public so poorly informed on the toxic accumulation of synthetic polymers that originate in the building industry and that pervade our air, water, and bodies? More precisely, why is this question not central to the very definition and practice of Life-Cycle Assessment? Surely, responsibility for answering these questions does lie exclusively with members of the AEC industry. Chemical companies, manufacturers, and governmental agencies have an important role to play. In Europe, significant strides have been made in what concerns regulatory and legislative requirements for the full material disclosure of industrial products. In 2006, the European Parliament ratified REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals), which is committed to “the protection of human health and the environment through the better and earlier identification of the intrinsic properties of chemical substances. ... REACH Regulation places responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances. Manufacturers and importers are required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, which will allow their safe handling, and to register the information in a central database in the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki (European Commission, REACH).” This is not, however, the case in the United States and in developing countries, where there is no legislative requirement for the disclosure of harmful materials as comprehensive and holistic as that proposed by the European Union. Under these circumstances, translating the responsibility for data transparency, of the kind facilitated by REACH, to members of the building industry is neither an easy or obvious task.

In response, this paper discusses the first outlines of a process for developing a holistic and communicative method for itemizing, evaluating, and communicating the human health (HH) impacts of polymerized materials sourced from fossil fuels. It identifies policy priorities and value parameters for the AEC industry, including the benefits of increased access to data and material flow analyses (MFA), to building-related assessment tools that highlight hazardous materials, to the facilitation of material disclosures, and to expanding the role of education in changing the industry’s position. Lastly, this paper identifies an intellectual infrastructure whose vocabulary, subject categories, and process protocols are needed when developing an industry-based Life-Cycle Index of Human Health in Building (LCI-HHB). After all, traditional LCAs are of little help to anyone not healthy enough to enjoy them.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Building Life Cycle: The various stages through which all materials and systems go through in the birth to waste cycle of a building including, Raw Material Extraction and Transportation, Refining and Chemical Synthesis, Material Manufacturing, Product Fabrication, Product Installation, Building Occupancy/Use, Waste Management, and Environmental Persistence of Materials.

Human Health: The register of life-affirming processes in the biological, the physical, and the emotional register of a population.

Material Toxicity: The amount and polemical definition of a material substance that is recognized scientifically to have a harmful effect on human health and the environment, in general. Effects of material toxicity include endocrine disruption to reproductive health, immune response, and embryonic development.

Polyvinyl Chloride: A synthetic polymer that originates from vinyl chloride and used in the making of pipes, cables, architectural flooring, and clothing. Vinyl chloride and its phthalate plasticizers are known carcinogens.

Environmental Product Declarations: Forms of visual and numerical accounting for all of the content, risks, and possible impact of material found in architectural building products.

Polymers: Molecules and units of molecules found in natural and synthetic (fossil fuel) sources that are the building blocks of architectural plastics.

Fossil-Fuels: Ancient forms of energy stored in the earth resulting from decomposition of carbon-based organisms, such as natural gas, coal, and petroleum.

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