Perspectives 04.14.2021

Behind the Vinyl Curtain: The Sobering Reality of Many Building Materials

A look into the potentially harmful impacts of synthetic chemicals and how designers can help their clients contribute to a healthier built environment.

From toothbrushes and coffee makers to smartphones and laptops, nearly everything we use on a daily basis is made of plastic. Though seemingly innocuous, plastic contains hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates and bisphenols, which are absorbed into our blood stream just by touching them. Petroleum, or crude oil, is converted into the monomers that are used to make plastic and are in many commonly used building materials, including some waterproofing, countertops, and flooring.

From antimicrobials, flame retardants, solvents, heavy metals, and highly fluorinated chemicals, building materials are a constant source of exposure to these substances of concern. The cumulative effect these substances have on our body is known as body burden.

“When you walk into a building, you don’t think about the materials you’re being exposed to,” architect Tori Wickard tells Life of an Architect podcast. “That’s why it’s so important for designers to be mindful of material health.”

Original audio from Life of an Architect Podcast

Cancerous chemicals and their burden on communities

An impressive concentration of petrochemical facilities are situated along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans—nicknamed “Cancer Alley”. The emissions from these facilities permeate into nearby areas, which are mostly Black and impoverished communities. These neighborhoods, called fenceline communities, are at a higher risk of cancer and respiratory hazards from toxic air pollution.

Fenceline communities are not just in Cancer Alley, however, and are scattered all across the U.S. Houston, Texas, for example, has a particularly high concentration of petrochemical manufacturing plants.

For Wickard and the project team working on the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge in Houston—a homelike facility with lodging and amenities for cancer patients receiving medical treatment—they saw firsthand how fenceline communities are impacted. When the team tested the water quality onsite, they found that the water contained vinyl chloride, a colorless gas used primarily to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and benzene, a derivative of crude oil—both of which are known causes of cancer.

“The guests at Hope Lodge could have potentially been drinking these chemicals had we not tested the water and installed a filtration system,” says Wickard.

Learn more about Hope Lodge in our article A Butterfly Effect: How Advocacy Sparks Industry Transparency, a behind-the-scenes look at our Material Performance Lab.

Taking baby steps

Our built environment is intrinsically linked to human health. However, despite the substantial negative effects of chemicals on the human body, regulation has been largely unchecked. In fact, of the 86,000+ chemicals in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory, only 200 have been tested for negative human health impact. And only five of those have been restricted in the U.S.

With such a lax standard on testing, designers and architects can play a critical role in helping their clients choose healthier products. For clients who aren’t as easily convinced about the importance or benefits of material health and transparency, Wickard suggests making the topic more relatable and consider how they may be personally impacted in their own lives. She also encourages designers to pick the top ten highest volume products or finishes in each project and choose healthier options throughout the design phase.

Original audio from Life of an Architect Podcast

These decisions can be streamlined through tools like our Precautionary List, a compilation of the most widely used problematic substances in the built environment, and our Transparency website, a digital database of these materials.

“We have to use this knowledge to empower ourselves and realize that this is not an all-or-nothing situation,” says Wickard. “Eliminating these substances of concern from every product is almost impossible. But instead of getting overwhelmed by this knowledge, we can use it to take baby steps in our daily lives.”

Learn more about Tori's backstory
Women of Perkins&Will: We Are Women, We Are Here
Listen to the full Life of an Architect Podcast episode
Ep 070: Dirty Side to Clean Buildings