Could buildings—or, more specifically, the interior finishes in buildings—increase our risk for developing asthma? A new study from the Healthy Building Network (HBN) asserts that asthma-causing chemicals, or asthmagens, are pervasive in building materials, and that reducing or eliminating these chemicals could improve asthma prevention strategies, reducing the rate of chronic asthma.

How, exactly, is this connected to buildings? The report, “Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection,” asserts that building materials can lead to indoor environmental conditions that “can lead to the development of asthma through exposures [to asthmagens] … and can trigger asthma attacks for those who already have the disease.”

Asthma, a chronic inflammatory lung condition, results in temporary narrowing of airways and is often characterized by wheezing, coughing, and tightness of the chest, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Although the exact cause of asthma is unknown, according to the National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, HBN researchers Sarah Lott and Jim Vallette zero in on asthmagens, which HBN researchers defined as “agents that cause the onset of asthma in someone who did not previously have the condition.”

The research team led by Lott and Vallette cross-referenced three lists of known asthmagen chemicals—from the Association of Occupational Environmental Clinics, Commission de la santé et de la securite du travail, and Collaborative on Health and the Environment—with the ingredients reported in more than 1,300 building products catalogued in the Pharos Building Product Library, which is maintained by HBN. They identified 38 chemicals appearing on both lists and identified 12 additional chemicals for further study on whether they may correlate with the onset of asthma.

The researchers found 20 of the identified asthmagens to have a high likelihood of occupant exposure. These asthmagens were used in products such as foam insulation, paints, adhesives, and flooring.

Credit: Courtesy Healthy Building Network, "Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection"


Many asthmagens will not be detected by current emissions testing protocols in indoor air quality certification systems, according to the study, which recommends a precautionary approach to preventing the introduction of asthmagens indoors. First, it suggests screening of building products for asthmagens, and the reformulation of products by manufacturers to reduce or eliminate the chemicals’ use. It recommends that indoor air quality and building rating systems be modified to address asthma. As an example, it recommends that the LEED rating system include incentives for projects that avoid the introduction of asthmagens in indoor environments. “Avoiding these chemical asthmagens should be part of any comprehensive strategy for creating healthy buildings,” said Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of HBN, during a press call regarding the study. For their part, HBN has expanded its coverage of asthmagens in Pharos and added a restricted substance list that includes the 20 top-priority asthmagens and eight high-priority suspected asthmagens. A filter to the Pharos library will now let subscriber identify and select products that do not contain these chemicals.

Click here to access the full study.