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Pre- and post-occupancy study finds chemicals in green buildings

Are you a developer who is working to meet green building standards? Are you considering leasing a green building? If so, you may be interested to know about a recent study in the journal Environmental Institute that indicates that building "green" doesn't necessarily mean building healthy. Indoor air pollution often isn't considered when taking buildings green for other purposes, yet it can lead to a range of health issues.

"Most buildings aren't designed with people's health in mind," said the study's lead author, an environmental exposure scientist at the Silent Spring Institute.

The researchers examined subsidized housing in Boston that was being redeveloped to meet green standards. They tested the building before and after the renovations, seeking evidence of around 100 chemicals known to be associated with health problems. The chemicals included things like pesticides, flame retardants, formaldehyde and phthalates.

Comparing the pre- and post-occupancy samples allowed the team to identify which chemicals appeared to originate from the building itself. They were also able to watch the influence of human habitation on the buildings.

Two worrisome flame retardants, TCIPP and TCDIPP, seemed to originate from the building. The researchers concluded they were probably added to insulation.

Interestingly, the team found a number of chemicals emanating from the building that would usually be associated with personal care products -- benzophenone and benzophenone-3, which are found in sunscreens, and di-butyl phthalate, which is typically found in nail polishes and perfumes.

"We certainly didn't expect to see that," said the lead researcher. "It's possible these chemicals are being added to paints or floor finishes."

In the post-occupancy samples, they found higher levels of a lot of chemicals found in personal care and cleaning products, and the like. Somewhat surprisingly, they found measurable levels of at least three chemicals that have been banned or phased out due to health concerns. These included BDE 47, which is part of a flame retardant mixture found in some older furniture. They also found the banned pesticides diazinon and propoxur.

Formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic, was found in both pre- and post-occupancy samples from every unit in the building. The volume present exceeded EPA screening levels.

Considering the toxic cleanup expected to be required after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the researchers hope their study will be informative to the green building industry.

"We should use these opportunities to get things right the first time by using safer, and healthier, materials that won't make people sick," the lead researcher said.

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