The paradox is to easy to spot: while the construction industry rallies round the concept of sustainability, there is no progress in sight when it comes to determining which ingredients in building materials are harmful to human health and the environment. On the contrary, the volume of chemicals in paints, glues, coatings, building materials and many other categories has increased.
In 2017 (the latest figures from the Nordic SPIN database), the building materials used in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland altogether contained almost 112,000 tonnes of substances classified as harmful in the Nordic region and/or the EU. In Denmark alone, the figure was 19,800 tonnes in 2017, whereas it was 14,200 tonnes in 2012 and 22,500 tonnes in 2016. These fluctuations may largely be due to varying levels of activity in the construction industry. But the bottom line is that material health does not have the same focus as ventilation, acoustics or daylight, for example.
“On the one hand, everyone in the construction industry is talking about sustainable building, but on the other, few people know what the building materials contain. Developers and architects are not chemists, so there is a general need for greater transparency about the ingredients,” says Martha Lewis, Senior Architect and Head of Materials, Henning Larsen Architects. She was awarded the ‘Person Prize’ at ‘Building Green’ sustainability awards in 2019.
“In many instances, building materials containing undesirable substances cannot be recycled in new buildings, nor can they be crushed and used as resources in new materials. That’s why this trend obstructs efforts to achieve a circular economy,” she continues, pointing out other adverse consequences:
“Materials with harmful substances will often be produced in conditions where employees are exposed to problematic chemicals. Builders are also exposed to questionable substances at construction sites, and in many cases the harmful ingredients lead to a higher level of degassing in a building’s indoor air, which can harm users’ health,” Martha Lewis says.