Are you living amid hazardous substances?By Isabel Berenguer Asuncion
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Indoor air quality affects your health more than you think. For most urban dwellers, daily living means being within the limits of four walls and a roof, for something like 80 percent of a day. Given the extent of confinement within enclosed environments, it only makes sense that we should be very careful about the quality of our indoor environment.
Being indoors does not keep you secluded from hazard. The sad fact is that a large number of building materials are sources of pollutants. Because they have been extensively processed, they contain chemicals and other elements that are given off in various forms. Some exist and float about as tiny particles too small to be seen by the human eye. And the others as vapor, detectable only when we can smell their nasty odors waft through the air.
Our bodies absorb these pollutants through our airways and through our skin, through single large doses or through prolonged exposure. What to look out for in the building materials? Let’s start with these notorious toxins:
1 Lead. This is found in batteries, paints and gasoline. A few years ago, oil companies stopped the production of leaded gas. Following suit, many gasoline products have stopped using lead and other manufacturers have eliminated it as well from their products. Paint companies have been producing lead-free paint, especially since many countries have already prohibited the use of lead (even in minute amounts) in paint production. If you are renovating an old home and need to strip paint, be extra careful as lead is likely present in the old paint, and can be exposed again through the solvents used in stripping off the paint, and the lead can be absorbed through the skin.
2 Asbestos. This was popularly used in the ’60s and ’70s for asbestos-cement roofing sheets, insulation, and cement pipes. Around 10 years ago, the use of asbestos for the home has been banned in many countries. Unfortunately, it was used in many products and could still be lurking undetected inside old homes. If left undisturbed, it may pose no or little hazard. But it could become hazardous if dismantled or burned, and their particles and fumes inhaled.
3 VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds. These are rare chemicals in vapor (that contain carbon, hence, “organic”) that come out of the building materials, especially when they have been newly manufactured or installed. Yes, they’re the awful chemical smell present in new spaces. VOCs are found in paints, adhesives, sealing compounds, fabrics made from synthetic fibers, plywood and engineered boards, rooms scents, bleaching chemicals, etc. They slowly diminish as materials become exposed to light and air as the vapors are slowly given off over time.
4 Pesticides. These occur in new environments largely in the form of treated wood or timber. Most commonly used for building materials are insecticides, termiticides and fungicides. Some of these are not inherently part of the materials, but are applied extensively to the materials or to the building site during the construction works.
The sad truth is that there is no real local agency strictly patrolling the use of these materials and the chemicals inherent in their production, and often even sales people are not aware of what chemicals lurk within the crevices of their products.
To lessen your risks, here are a few things to remember:
Ask suppliers for compliance certificates. If they don’t have any from local agencies, ask them to provide you one from their source of origin and make that guarantee part of their supply contract;
If you are building the new space, exercise a certain amount of control at the site during construction in terms of soil poisoning and pest control so you don’t prematurely treat the site with unnecessary chemicals. Check what chemicals your contractor is proposing to use, and if they are too hazardous, ask for alternatives. Demand that the contractor keeps the site neat and clean to avoid pest infestation.
Lastly, promote indoor air exchange and allow spaces to vent out after construction so that both dust particles and chemicals are cleared out of your spaces. It is worthy to note that new office spaces suffer most from this type of “poisoning” since most office buildings have inoperable windows, and it takes many weeks for pollutants to be diminished. In this case, install temporary air cleaners, and run the air-conditioners to allow their filters to clean out air. Clean out aircon filters before making use of the spaces.
Be discriminating in your choice of materials and in the control of your indoor environment. Health isn’t just wealth—it’s an irreplaceable resource.
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