5 Common Toxic Building Materials & How Homeowners Can Protect Themselves

C.E. Larusso
Written by C.E. Larusso
Updated January 6, 2022
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Highlights

  • The most common toxic building materials are asbestos, formaldehyde, chromated copper arsenic, VOCs, and PVC.

  • Many of these materials are also harmful to the environment.

  • Consider green building materials, such as cork, to replace these ones.

  • Repainting with no-VOC paint is an inexpensive way to create a healthier home.

  • Ventilation is key; airflow prevents a build-up of toxic gases.

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It sounds like the stuff of fiction: a silent, odorless chemical lurking in your walls, causing issues like breathing problems or leading to more harmful diseases, like cancer. Unfortunately, it’s reality. Toxic materials can be found in various building materials, including pipes, paints, and flooring. 

Everyone reacts differently to these chemicals, with some, such as those with asthma, being more sensitive than others. However, if you’re concerned about the effects they have on our bodies and our environment, read on to learn the most common toxic building materials and how you can rid your home of them.

1. Asbestos

What it is: Asbestos is a natural substance—a mineral—made of thin fibers. It is very difficult to identify, as it is mixed with other materials, but sometimes it can look like pieces of fraying fabric. It was commonly used in many building materials in structures built before the 1980s; it was outlawed in many residential applications in the late 1970s, though it is still used in some instances. 

Why it’s dangerous: Exposure to asbestos can cause a form of cancer known as mesothelioma, which forms tumors on the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. Those who have been exposed to asbestos are typically not diagnosed for at least 15 years after exposure. This toxic material was once typically used in:

  • Cement

  • Ceiling and floor tiles

  • Roof shingles

  • Steam pipes

  • Textured paint

  • Spray-on insulation

Those in older homes can risk asbestos exposure when they perform DIY repairs or renovations. This process might involve drilling into drywall, removing old tiles, or something else that disturbs the old materials in the home. 

What to do: Get an accredited local asbestos removal professional to assess the area you wish to renovate or repair to avoid asbestos exposure. Do not try to remove asbestos yourself, and don’t throw it away with other household waste; it needs to be handled and removed by someone with proper training to do so.

2. Formaldehyde

What it is: Formaldehyde is present in nearly all homes, as it is a chemical involved in the process of making furniture, flooring, insulation, and even fabric, such as window curtains. Formaldehyde levels are higher in homes with smokers, as tobacco smoke contains formaldehyde. 

It is also higher in newer homes, as newly manufactured wood products—such as particleboard, hardwood plywood paneling, and medium-density fiberboard—often have the highest levels of the chemical. 

Why it’s dangerous: Formaldehyde is colorless but emits a pungent odor. It can cause respiratory irritation and is a known carcinogen. Some people have reported difficulty breathing after exposure, but only at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million).

What to do: Since there is no ban on formaldehyde as a building material, your best bet to prevent high levels of exposure is to avoid products containing the chemical. You can also:

  • Look for items labeled as low-or-no VOC (volatile organic compounds) or made without formaldehyde.

  • When shopping for manufactured wood products, purchase those labeled as compliant with ANSI or California Air Resources Board Air Toxics Control Measure (CARB- ATCM) standards.

  • Replace any insulation with formaldehyde-free or cellulose varieties.

If you have purchased a product containing formaldehyde, there are still ways to limit exposure. You should:

  • Allow the items to off-gas or air out for a few days before bringing them inside; you can ask the store or manufacturer to leave the item unsealed in the warehouse for 72 hours before delivery.

  • Ventilate your home: Open your windows or utilize a furnace air exchanger, which will bring in fresh air from outside.

  • Lower the heat and humidity using your HVAC system: the higher the heat and humidity, the more formaldehyde released.

3. Volatile Organic Compounds

What they are: Volatile Organic Compounds—or VOCs for short—is a blanket term used to describe a wide array of toxic materials, including benzene and formaldehyde. VOCs are found in many household items, like cleaning supplies, pesticides, printers, mattresses, glues and adhesives, but you can commonly find them in paints, paint strippers, and lacquers. 

Why they’re dangerous: According to the EPA, VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, damage to the liver and kidneys, and possibly cancer. Because of this, there has been a trend to manufacture more low or no-VOC paints and other materials. 

What to do: If you’d like to reduce your exposure to VOCs, consider:

  • Purchase paints and related materials labeled as no or low VOC.

  • Increase the ventilation in your home when using anything with VOCs by opening your windows and utilizing your HVAC system and fans.

  • Purchase an air cleaning device.

  • Follow local government recommendations to throw out old paint cans safely.

  • Only buy as much paint as you need.

4. Chromated Copper Arsenic

What it is: Often abbreviated to CCA, this material was once used to treat wood to protect it from termites, fungi, and other pests. The EPA and the lumber industry decided to discontinue the use of wood treated with this compound in 2003, according to the EPA, but before that, people commonly used it in wood used to build decks, picnic tables, fences, and playsets. 

Why it’s dangerous: The decision to discontinue its use came after learning that many who worked in lumber facilities had adverse health reactions, including cancer.

What to do: If you have older wood or wood structures in your home that you suspect may have been treated with CCA, you can apply a penetrative protective coating (such as an oil stain) regularly to reduce chemical leakage; at this time, the EPA does not recommend a full replacement of any wood treated with CCA. 

If you wish to dispose of any old wood, contact your state and local governments, as they might have specific protocols to follow for throwing out wood with CCA. You should never burn treated wood, as it could cause you to inhale some of the chemicals in the air.

5. PVC

What it is: PVC is made from vinyl chloride, an inorganic substance. You can find it in a variety of plastic products, including pipes, wire and cable coatings, vinyl flooring, window shutters, and packaging materials. It can also be found in furniture, wall coverings, and housewares. 

Why it’s dangerous: According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, prolonged exposure to PVC can cause damage to the nervous and immune systems and decreased bone strength. It may also increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. In addition to being potentially toxic to you and your family, the chemical is environmentally damaging since there is no safe way to dispose of it. 

What to do: As reported by the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, dumping it in landfills can cause it to leak into groundwater, burning it releases toxins in the air. When it is sent to a recycling facility, it can increase the toxic impact of the recycling process for other items, like computers and corrugated cardboard. 

Since there are no federal regulations on PVC, you as a consumer must make the final decision as to how comfortable you are with it in your home’s building materials.

To minimize your exposure to PVC, follow these tips:

  • Do not purchase items labeled “#3” or “PVC.”

  • Consider environmentally friendly alternatives to vinyl flooring, such as ceramic tile or cork.

  • Replace your pipes with copper, cast iron, or concrete ones.

  • Look for wallpaper made from natural fibers.

  • Replace window shutters with hardwood models.

  • Never burn any materials made from PVC, which releases very toxic dioxins when broken down.

How to Know if There are Toxins in Your Building Materials

Before starting a renovation project, check the Material Safety Data Sheets to see if a product is toxic. These data sheets, created by a chemical regulatory information services agency, offer detailed information about a product’s environmental hazards. Your contractor should have them, or you can search for them online. 

Before you begin any construction, talk to your contractor to review the materials in your home and suggest environmentally safe alternatives. You can also get an indoor air quality test, which costs around $400, to check for various hazardous materials (including asbestos, VOCs, mold) present before and after construction. 

There should be many ways to update your home without costing you a lot of cash; repainting with low or no-VOC paint is a small way to create a healthier environment.

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