ENVIRONMENTAL ILLNESS: HOW TOXIC MATERIALS USED IN ARCHITECTURE & INTERIORS AFFECT OUR HEALTH.
The use of highly processed toxic materials for architecture and construction in the past century until today has led to a myriad of problems that have detrimental effects on indoor climate and our health, as well creating a disconnection with the healing frequencies of Nature.
Allergies, autoimmune diseases, symptoms of unknown illnesses to which traditional medicine does not always have answers to, are rising exponentially among the population.
In this article, our objective is to bring awareness about Environmental Illness, as well as more clarity on what designing for wellbeing and health truly means.
Asbestos, formaldehyde, pesticides, quality of drinking water, indoor air quality, VOCs, electromagnetic fields, Sick Building Syndrome....
Most people have heard these environmental “buzz words” on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers. People are becoming convinced that there is a problem, but they are confused about the extent of the problem, about how the problem applies to them in their own homes and workplaces, and about what they can or should be doing to protect the health of their families. This confusion exists because we hear conflicting voices in the media, not only from representatives of government, industry, and medical fields, but also from advertisers who promote various 'nontoxic’, low toxic or otherwise environmentally safe products.
To add up to the overall confusion is the widespread use of the word “Sustainable” which is generally (wrongly) associated with “Healthy” when it comes to the built environment.
“Sustainable” design does not mean “healthy” design. Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment. Healthy design (or design that supports our health) seeks to create environments that are free of processed toxic materials, to reduce negative impacts on our health, and the extended networks we are part of such as animals and nature. A practical example: construction materials made of recycled products are considered sustainable, however they are not always healthy as the recycling process requires many chemicals (VOCs and formaldehyde) embedded in the products that then emit toxins in the environment the product is placed in, along with static electricity created by synthetic materials that depletes indoor air quality, neutralizing negative ions and making the air filled with only positive ones.
If we had labels listing the ingredients of our buildings, from the architecture to interiors materials and furnishing, these would be comparable to the ingredients of what we know as junk and unhealthy food = it is made of chemicals, toxins, asbestos to name a few.
Generally speaking, today’s buildings are made of:
-80/90% highly processed materials -10/20% moderately processed materials -1/5% natural origin materials Only 100 years ago, these percentages were exactly the opposite, as we used to live in natural homes. Just few years ago, people have started becoming more aware of what they eat, the ingredients of the food and where it is made, by whom and how. We all try to eat natural organic food to nourish our body, and the same approach should be applied to our environments to ensure we minimize as much as possible environmental toxins and chemicals, as our bodies absorb toxins through our skin and respiratory tracks, not only through our stomachs.
Some alarming data from the Environmental Protection Agency about Environmental Illness as follow:
-50% of illness is caused or worsened by indoor pollution
-Asthma and respiratory diseases have doubled since 1980, most heavily for kids
-Chemical sensitivity has grown to ~18% of the population
-65% our buildings are polluted
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a condition in which people in a building suffer from symptoms of illness or become infected with chronic disease from the building in which they work or reside, the sicknesses caused by sick buildings are identified as Environmental Illness and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, depending on what toxins is triggering the specific disease.
Environmental Illness (EI) is a general term for an abnormal state of health where minute amounts of chemicals or low-level electromagnetic radiation (EMR or EMF) in the environment cause severe adverse reactions. For a specific sensitivity to chemicals, we speak of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), while for sensitivity to electromagnetic radiations we speak of Electromagnetic sensitivity (ES). In most people these two are always combined, hence chemically sensitive people are mostly sensitive to EMF as well, and vice versa.
To name a few of the environmental toxins and their effects on our health and well-being, and main causes of Environmental Illness:
-Mold spores and mycotoxins
-VOCs, solvents, formaldehyde
While most people have heard about VOCs, mold and electromagnetic fields are less popular, as well as being the most underrated environmental threats: Electromagnetic fields are man-made frequencies that create inflammation in our body, by breaking our cells membranes and increasing free radicals that can lead to many diseases. They are generated by cell masts phone towers in our urban environment, and smart technology inside our buildings and homes. Mold grows in humid environments in false ceiling, walls, AC ducts, behind wallpapers, and the mold mycotoxins and spores we inhale irritate nose, eyes, throat sinus as well as enter all body systems, continuing its growth inside our organs.
Unfortunately, due to today’s construction practices, mold is found in at least 60% of the homes due to the wrong use and implementation of construction materials, while there is very little awareness about the health effects of EMF, and these are not even considered in the mainstream sustainable and wellness certifications, such as the LEED and Well, despite the thousand’s scientific papers presented by doctors and scientists.
VOCs, solvents and formaldehyde are found in most interior and architectural materials such as paint and primers, fabrics, insulation materials inside our walls, adhesives and glues, carpets and rugs. As an example, when choosing a natural wooden floor with natural sealers to avoid the toxins from oil-based sealants, it is a must to avoid adhesives and glues for the installation of the wooden planks, as these also off gas formaldehyde in our indoor environments. A non-toxic installation is highly recommended (such as floating installation with moisture resistant sheets, or natural adhesives depending on the property location).
"These insidious chemical compounds emitted by synthetic materials, mold and EMF can affect almost every system in the body. They have been found in every organ in the body, in bone marrow, and in the blood. Symptoms include headaches, mild respiratory problems, asthma, concentration and memory problems, cancer, birth defects, CNS disorders mutagenic effects, Estrogen mimicking, brain damage, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), organ damage, and organ failure.
Symptoms of acute exposure often subside upon leaving the affected area. Chronic exposure can lead to MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) and has been implicated in leukemia development."(International Institute for Building-Biology® and Ecology, 2021).
A general list of symptoms includes:
-Upper respiratory irritation (coughing, runny nose)
-Short term memory loss
-Central nervous system problems
If we want to re-gain our health, we must start implementing healthier construction practices, which should start from the architectural community, to educate clients and contractors to design and build in a healthy natural way, free of toxins, chemicals and processed materials.
We must look beyond the mainstream sustainable certifications and start demanding and using more natural non-toxic products for architecture and design.
A healthy design starts from making conscious decisions on what materials and energy we bring in our homes and workplaces, in the same way we make conscious decision about what food we put in our body. The first step to be made by architects and end users is to question what are the ingredients of this product I am specifying or buying in a shop, what is this paint made of, what are the chemicals in this rug, and many more.
This can be a very overwhelming process, as there are many hidden ingredients and binders, beside the challenging in reading and understanding all ingredients of architecture and interior products, reason why there are Building Biologists that help and guide people and architects to make healthier choices for their projects, home and offices.
We have to think of our body as an imaginary cup filled with toxic exposure.
Depending on toxic load, one day some exposure could put us over the edge. It makes more sense to work now on emptying those cups instead of waiting for them to overflow.
This is the house doctor’s equivalent of “eat right and get plenty of exercise and good rest”.
Maintaining a healthy environment, like maintaining a healthy body: it requires preventive medicine.