Clean Building Materials
What are clean building materials?
Healthier homes are built with healthier materials.
U.S. residents spend about 90% of their time indoors, and research shows that the choices made by builders have long-term impacts on the health of the indoor environments they create. From flooring to insulation, caulks to paints, healthier options are available that can reduce the load of toxic chemicals in indoor spaces.
Research has demonstrated when toxic chemicals are used in building materials, those chemicals turn up in our indoor air and dust, exposing building occupants. For example, the use of materials such as vinyl flooring has resulted in increased exposure to hormone-disrupting phthalates—and children living in environments with more phthalates are more likely to suffer from asthma. Similarly, buildings with PFAS-free carpets have lower loadings of PFAS in dust, an intervention that can reduce exposure to these persistent, immune-suppressing compounds.
From phthalates in sealants to toxic flame retardants in insulation, many common home construction materials include toxic ingredients that can damage our health. There are healthier materials available today, and using these materials presents a key opportunity to reduce our exposure to harmful toxics. Any improvements in housing materials will only be able to truly improve public health once they are implemented in all housing—and today, these healthier housing environments should be the standard for affordable housing.
State policies guide home materials used in affordable housing
Many policies that guide building materials for affordable housing are at the state level.
In Washington State, the Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard is followed by all housing projects that receive funding from the state’s Housing Trust Fund Program, and the state’s weatherization program funds housing improvements for low-income residents. The Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard’s healthy flooring materials section (version 3.0.1, issued in 2018) illustrates that in many of these policies only certain healthier building materials are mandatory. While carpets meeting a low VOC certification are required in the standard, other healthier flooring materials, like flooring without PVC or chlorine, are optional.
Choosing healthier building materials
Many home building materials used historically—and that continue to be used today—contain toxic chemicals that can harm the health of residents. There are less toxic alternatives that can make our homes healthier.
For example, some insulation contains persistent and toxic flame retardants. Healthier alternatives, like blown-in fiberglass or expanded cork, offer a path to healthier homes. Similarly, some carpeting uses a highly toxic class of chemical known as PFAS “forever chemicals” for a stain repellent. Linoleum and solid wood floors are examples of healthier alternatives.
Tools to guide selecting healthier building materials
Resources to help builders choose materials that will help reduce toxic exposures are available.
One resource is a national initiative to help affordable housing developers create healthier housing, HomeFree. Developed by the Healthy Building Network, it outlines healthier building materials in key categories—from insulation and sealants to flooring and countertops.