Chemicals in building materials: Disproportionate impacts on people of color
Building products and materials that make up our indoor spaces can cause long-term harm to human health. This much we know.
We also know that while chemicals and air pollutants don’t discriminate, generations of systemic inequalities have caused racial injustices and disproportionate exposures of people of color to hazardous chemicals. What deserves more consideration is where there are building product opportunities to improve the health of people of color.
Communities of color are overwhelmingly at risk of facing higher exposure to indoor pollutants. Biomonitoring has shown that Black Americans have higher levels of lead, mercury, phthalates and VOCs in their bodies, Mexican Americans have more arsenic, PAHs, and pesticides, and Asian Americans have higher than average levels of arsenic, cadmium, and manganese.
Meanwhile, people of color have higher rates of chemical-linked health conditions. Black and Hispanic American children suffer more from childhood asthma and obesity, while Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NHOPI) communities are more likely to have diabetes compared to the general population.
Lead: Still causing harm
Although it was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1978, lead is still commonly found in the environment and homes — particularly older homes — and can contaminate buildings even if it is painted over. Children are especially at risk as they crawl and explore the world by putting things in their mouth.
Lead can also enter drinking water through corrosion of plumbing materials, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. Lead exposure is well known to cause neurodevelopmental harm, and several studies — including the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a program design to assess the health and nutritional status of Americans — have noted an association between high blood lead levels and hypertension.
Meanwhile heavy metals such as mercury and lead have been found to be significantly higher in the bodies of non-Hispanic Blacks, especially Black women.
Prenatal VOC exposures increase risks for babies
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that can be released into the air under normal conditions of temperature and pressure. Building products can emit chemicals such as formaldehyde, isocyanates, styrene, toluene, or phthalates. These chemicals can be breathed in by workers producing or installing a product, and by families who live with the products in their home.
Air pollution exposure during pregnancy, including exposure to VOCs, is linked to preterm birth and low birth weight, both risk factors for infant death. In utero exposures can also lead to health problems in children and later in life, including interfering with brain development. For pregnant people, illnesses during gestation can be exacerbated by air pollution exposure.
Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that people of color are more likely to experience adverse birth risks and outcomes compared to white people. Black, Hispanic, AIAN and NHOPI people are all more likely to have preterm births, low birthweights and infant mortality.
Toward a healthier, more just built environment
Using building products that do not contain VOCs, lead, or other toxic chemicals can create a healthier environment for people of color. Affordable housing developers, health advocates and housing tenants’ groups should encourage the use of alternative building materials that could reduce or eliminate exposure to these chemicals.
Thankfully, there are opportunities on the horizon that could address disproportionate exposures to vulnerable communities. Federal programs that received additional funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act – two significant pieces of legislation enacted the past two years – could be used to support people of color who are impacted by unsafe, hazardous, and energy inefficient housing.
Resources are also available — such as Building Clean’s “Good, Better, Best” classification for product certifications and labels that are free of the most hazardous content — to help developers, advocates and others evaluate what chemicals may be harmful to occupants and installers, which products contain these materials, and what healthier building products are available.
Jeff Hurley is State Initiatives Manager, and El'gin Avila is Director of Occupational and Environmental Health and Equity, at BlueGreen Alliance.
CHE recently co-hosted a series on Environmental Justice in the Built Environment with the BlueGreen Alliance, UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, and the Healthy Building Network.
The three webinars in the series feature experts highlighting what science shows about the disproportionate impacts of chemicals in building materials on people of color, and available tools and resources supporting healthier choices. Recordings and resources are available for each session at the links below.