Photo © Rehabilitation Clinic Frankenhausen, Germany, BfA
Just as healthcare professionals diagnose a patient’s illness and prescribe appropriate treatment, so too are a growing number of building professionals diagnosing how buildings affect human health and the environment and prescribing strategies to minimise these impacts. This is in response to mounting evidence that buildings through their life cycle are significant causes of human illness and environmental degradation.
Many common construction materials can emit harmful compounds and harbour infectious moulds, fungi and bacteria. Consider air quality as an example, while poor air quality is commonly associated with outdoor air, air inside buildings is often worse. Most sources of indoor air pollution come from materials and products used in the building such as adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, and manufactured wood products that may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde, a probable human carcinogen. Health affects from VOCs and other contributors to poor indoor air quality include asthma, cancer, and reproductive and development effects, and are manifested in thousands of cancer deaths and hundreds of thousands of respiratory health problems.
PVC (polyvinylchloride) building products also raise serious indoor health concerns along with many other environmental concerns. The release of highly toxic hydrogen chloride gas fumes and dioxins and furans resulting from accidental or intentional combustion of PVC has prompted a range of European and international organisations to advocate the use of PVC alternative products. In addition, exposure to PVC can lead to exposure to the host of hazardous compounds used as additives in PVC products. Particularly notable are the off gassing of endocrine disrupting phthalate plasticizers used in many flexible PVC products, and the release of toxic heavy metals stabilizers such as lead, cadmium and organotins used in rigid PVC products. PVC has also been found to encourage toxic mould growth as moisture is trapped behind PVC wall coverings.
The construction and use of buildings consumes billions of tons of raw materials, generates significant waste, consumes a tremendous amount of energy and contributes toxic emissions to the air. Given this impact, there are significant opportunities to improve environmental quality and human health through the green planning, design and construction of healthcare facilities. Driven by a concern for public health, a desire to reduce operating costs, and a sense of social responsibility, healthcare institutions are increasingly embracing healthy building goals.