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Wellness Journalism: The Toxicity of Our City- Part I

Posted Apr 08 2010 12:16pm
Building us up, or tearing us down?

We know that much of the food pumped into our stomachs is nasty business (high fructose corn syrup, anyone?). That’s just the beginning. It’s ironic, but even our best doctors practice medicine in buildings that are hazardous to our health.

Many commonly used building materials contain chemicals linked to cancer, respiratory problems, hormone interference, and reproductive or developmental harm. While the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has registered more than 80,000 chemicals for use, and identified 16,000 of them as chemicals of concern, they have only subjected 250 to mandatory hazard testing and only restricted five chemicals.

Here’s a potent example: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It’s the most widely used plastic polymer in the United States, with 14 billion pounds produced every year, and the building industry has its hands on more than 75% of it. The trouble with PVC and other chlorinated plastics (found in pipes, weather stripping, walls, gaskets, window treatments, wiring, flooring, and furniture, to name a few) is that the chlorine content produces dioxins. Note the root, di-, as in, this stuff will kill you—dioxins contain some of the most potent carcinogens known to humanity. Furthermore, dioxins are members of an insidious family of compounds known as Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxicants. This means they don’t go away just because we ignore it; rather, they fester in living organisms via air, soil, water, and food. These toxins are stored in fatty tissue, increasing their concentrations by orders of magnitude as they move up the food chain to humans at the top, becoming most concentrated in mothers’ milk. Delicious.

Now let’s look at another gross offender, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These particles become gas at room temperatures, and as a result tend to evaporate from a building product into the air and down into your lungs. A commonly used compound that behaves in this manner is formaldehyde, which damages your liver, kidney, and nervous system, and increases cancer risk. You can find VOCs in the carpet, fabrics, paints, and varnishes—basically everything that you come into contact with.

Thankfully, in this era of environmental renaissance, companies are employing all sorts of technologies to reduce or eliminate the presence of toxic materials in constructing our world. There are many certification systems in place for builders who want a green sticker on their project, and anybody walking into a Home Depot can choose between poisonous and non-poisonous paint varieties. Educate yourself, and recognize the efforts of sustainable developers!

As if discussing poisonous buildings isn’t enough excitement, in the next blog I’m going to talk about the products you use in your home and on your body. Stay tuned.
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