The Impact of Building Product Chemicals on Human Health

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Chemicals play a pivotal role in various aspects of our lives; from the products we use daily to the environment we inhabit. Chemicals in building products are evaluated in green building ratings systems like LEED and WELL. 

While many chemicals are beneficial and necessary for human advancement, some can pose significant risks to human health. Understanding the impact of chemicals on human health is crucial for making informed decisions regarding their usage, ensuring safety measures, and mitigating potential hazards.

The Human Body

Chemicals can enter our bodies through various pathways, including inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact. The sources of chemical exposure are diverse and can include industrial emissions, agricultural practices, consumer products, and even natural substances like mold and pollen. Understanding the sources of exposure helps us identify potential risks and implement appropriate protective measures.

Certain chemicals, when encountered in high concentrations or under specific circumstances, can cause immediate adverse health effects. For example, exposure to toxic gases or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can lead to respiratory problems, eye irritation, nausea, or even acute poisoning.

Long-term exposure to certain chemicals can result in chronic health issues. For instance, exposure to hazardous substances like asbestos or lead over extended periods can lead to severe respiratory problems, neurological disorders, organ damage, or an increased risk of developing cancer.

Chemicals known as endocrine disruptors can interfere with the body’s hormonal system. Exposure to such chemicals, including certain pesticides, plasticizers, and industrial pollutants, has been linked to reproductive disorders, developmental abnormalities, and hormone-related cancers.

Many chemicals have been identified as carcinogens, substances capable of causing cancer. These include some industrial chemicals, air pollutants, pesticides, and certain additives in food and cosmetics. Prolonged exposure to these carcinogens can increase the likelihood of developing cancerous tumors.

Vulnerable Populations

Certain groups, such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly, may be more susceptible to the adverse effects of chemical exposure. Children, for instance, have developing organ systems that make them more vulnerable to the toxic effects of chemicals. Pregnant women can pass chemicals to their unborn children, potentially causing developmental issues. Identifying and protecting these vulnerable populations is crucial for safeguarding public health.

To protect human health, governments and regulatory agencies establish guidelines and standards for chemical usage and exposure limits. These measures aim to ensure the safe production, handling, and disposal of chemicals. Safety precautions, such as personal protective equipment, ventilation systems, and hazard communication, are crucial in workplaces and industries to minimize exposure risks.

LEED Certification

LEED primarily focuses on energy efficiency and resource conservation, it also considers the impact of chemicals in products used in building construction and maintenance. The evaluation of chemicals in products within the LEED ratings system involves several key components.

LEED requires building product manufacturers to disclose the chemical ingredients used in their products for certain LEED credits. This transparency allows project teams to understand the potential hazards associated with the chemicals and make informed decisions during the selection process. Manufacturers are encouraged to provide comprehensive information about their products’ ingredients, including any hazardous substances or chemicals of concern. 

The Health Product Declaration (HPD) is the most requested material transparency document in the AEC industry. In addition, the Declare Label is another material transparency document often required for product specification. Both of these resources provide critical tools for design professionals so they can select the healthiest building product. 

LEED identifies certain chemicals of concern that should be minimized or eliminated in building materials. These chemicals may include known carcinogens, reproductive toxins, persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), and ozone-depleting substances. By specifying restricted chemicals, LEED encourages the use of safer alternatives and promotes the reduction of potential health and environmental impacts.

LEED places significant emphasis on reducing indoor air pollution, including the release of VOCs. VOCs are chemicals that can off-gas from building materials, finishes, and furnishings, contributing to poor indoor air quality. The LEED rating system sets limits on VOC emissions from various product categories, such as paints, adhesives, and composite wood. Products that meet these stringent VOC requirements earn credits towards LEED certification.


Chemicals have become an integral part of modern society, providing numerous benefits while also posing potential risks to human health. Understanding the impact of chemicals on human health is essential for adopting responsible practices, implementing safety measures, and minimizing exposure risks. By promoting awareness, conducting further research, and enforcing appropriate regulations, we can strike a balance between utilizing the benefits of chemicals and safeguarding the well-being of individuals and communities.

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