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Greenbuild Blog

Healthy Materials: Six Chemicals to Look Out For in Your 2023 Projects

By Jennifer Easton

July 18, 2023

Architects, engineers, designers, facilities professionals and product manufacturers can have a powerful impact on the well-being of building occupants through their selection of materials. Everything from insulation and flooring, to paints and finishes, furniture, decor and even cleaning products can either help or hinder the health of the people in the buildings they design, construct and manage. 

With an extraordinary amount of materials, ingredients and chemicals to consider, how can building professionals begin the process of selecting safer and healthier materials for their projects? 

An excellent place to start is with the Green Science Policy Institute’s Six Classes of Harmful Chemicals. Founded in 2008, the Green Science Policy Institute has been a respected leader in educating facilitating the safer use of chemicals to protect human and ecological health through partnerships with government, business, academic and public interest groups. 

Read on for a quick primer on the six classes, and where these chemicals of concern may appear in the materials that you’re using in your next project so that you can seek out healthier alternatives.

1. PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) 

  • What are they? PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down into safer substances in the environment, and remain in the bodies of humans and animals for years. They’re frequently used to make products non-stick, water-repellent, and stain-repellent, though 2023 research showed that PFAS are not as effective as once thought at making furniture stain-repellent. 

  • How do they impact human health? PFAS have been linked to immune suppression, high cholesterol, and certain cancers. 

  • In what types of building products are they typically found? Carpets, cleaning products, furnishings, and adhesives and sealants. 

2. Antimicrobials

  • What are they? Antimicrobials are used in a variety of products to kill or limit the growth of microbes. Research published in May 2023 outlined the health risks of QACs (quaternary ammonium compounds), often found in disinfectant wipes used in schools, hospitals and other settings. 

  • How do they impact human health? Certain antimicrobials can disrupt hormone function, cause developmental and reproductive issues, allergen sensitivity and antibiotic resistance. 

  • In what types of building products are they typically found? Hand soaps, paints, flooring, and countertops. 

3. Flame retardants

  • What are they? This class of chemicals is utilized to meet flammability standards, but in reality can make fires more dangerous as they release toxic gases and often delay ignition by just a few seconds. 

  • How do they impact human health? Some flame retardants can cause hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive harm, and even cancer risk. 

  • In what types of building products are they typically found? Furniture foam, building insulation, textiles, carpet padding, fabric blinds, paints and coatings, and wire and cable sheathing. 

4. Bisphenols & Phthalates

  • What are they? Bisphenols and phthalates, including the commonly known BPA, can make plastic stronger or in some cases, more flexible. 

  • How do they impact human health? Early life exposure to BPA can cause asthma and neurodevelopmental problems. This class as a whole can mimic or block hormones and disrupt body systems, even at low levels. 

  • In what types of building products are they typically found? Epoxy adhesives, vinyl flooring, flexible PVC pipes, and caulks and adhesives. 

5. Some solvents

  • What are they? Solvents are used to dissolve or disperse other substances: Both halogenated solvents, including trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, and aromatic hydrocarbon solvents, like toluene and benzene, pose health and environmental concerns.  

  • How do they impact human health? Solvents can cause rashes and breathing problems, with long-term occupational exposure linked to cancer risk and organ failure. Even lower-level exposure can lead to permanent health issues. 

  • In what types of building products are they typically found? Oil-based paints, paint strippers, adhesives, wood finishes, aerosols, sealants and cleaners. 

6. Certain metals 

  • What are they? Naturally occurring elements, like mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead.

  • How do they impact human health? These can harm brain development, increase cancer risk, among a litany of other health effects.

  • In what types of building products are they typically found? Fluorescent lights (mercury), metal plating and solder (cadmium), vinyl products (lead). 


For more resources on healthy building materials and ideas on how to enact positive change in the projects you’re working on, we recommend exploring: