by John Lansdell

Humans have occupied the earth for more than 1 million years. We have been in our present form for approximately 200,000 years. That time frame represents more than 50,000 generations. Our minds and bodies have been able to evolve, learn and adjust to the natural materials on the earth.

Over the last 200 years – and especially over the last 70 years, since World War II – we have developed a large number of chemicals and materials that are not naturally made on this earth. In 1990, the American Chemical Society had registered more than 10 million chemicals that were man-made. These synthetic chemicals are increasing in number by nearly 600,000 new chemicals every year.
Our bodies have not been able to adjust to many of these chemicals, resulting in classic toxicity, allergies and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). A large number of these chemicals have been developed from crude oil and coal tar. Crude oil and coal tar contain benzene, toluene and xylene. Benzene is known to cause cancer; toluene causes damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system; and xylene causes damage to the central nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidneys, eyes and skin.
According to Mold-Survivor, multiple chemical sensitivity is defined as “illness reactions associated with exposure to more than one chemical, at significantly lower exposure levels than would cause noticeable illness in the general population, not mediated solely by known immune mechanisms, often accompanied by unusual fatigue, involving symptoms of the central nervous system.” People with MCS often are restricted to living in special housing where there are no chemicals within natural building materials and no chemicals used or stored within the residence. These people are no longer able to function within the work place because of their sensitivities.
The construction industry has changed in the last century, using hazardous materials as a replacement for natural materials as follows:
  • Glue replacing nails
  • Particleboard replacing solid wood
  • Plastic pipe replacing metal pipes
  • Chemically treated wood replacing untreated wood
  • Synthetic wall-to-wall carpet replacing wool and cotton area rugs
  • Toxic synthetic insulation replacing wood chips
The Materials Petal of the Living Building Institute’s Living Building Challenge contains a red list of 22 synthetic compounds that cannot be contained within a building’s materials, should that building wish to satisfy that petal. These compounds represent almost 800 chemicals that are represented by other names but have the same chemical formula. The synthetic chemicals on the red list are known or suspected health risks to man. One example compound on the list is phthalates. Phthalates are used to make plastics more flexible and have been known to cause breast cancer and endocrine damage. Another example is formaldehyde, which is used to bind composite wood products and as a binder in batt insulation. This compound has been known to cause respiratory problems and has been linked to cancer.
The International Well Building Institute is concerned with the health and well-being of building occupants. They have published the WELL Building Standard. This standard contains requirements for air quality and necessitates toxic material reduction. The toxic materials targeted include: perfluorinated compounds, flame retardants, phthalates, isocyanate-based polyurethane and urea-formaldehyde. Table 3A Materials standards of this standard lists 32 harmful chemicals that are commonly found in buildings that are harmful to the health of occupants.
Building material selections must be carefully made to ensure the healthiness of the place being designed. Each product must be reviewed and examined to ensure there is no hazard caused during the harvesting, manufacture, installation, eventual removal or replacement, and placement back into the earth.

It is our goal to design all places that will not adversely affect the health of the harvesters, manufacturers, builders, eventual occupants and those recycling materials at the end of the life of a building.

Originally from Canada, John Lansdell is a true architectural technologist with over 40 years of experience in the design and construction industry. John joined LGA in 2006 to fulfill his desire to work on specific projects of high integrity and sustainability and has since received his Master of Science in Green Building at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture.