How do we build and live in toxin-free buildings?

By Jessica Schultz For the Gazette

February 22, 2019

The modern environmental movement began with Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” about widespread contamination of land and water by DDT and other long-lasting pesticides. Developed in the 1940s, these chemicals went into wide use after World War II. But evidence mounted that they persisted in the environment and accumulated in animal and human tissue; as a result, DDT and most related pesticides have been phased out in the U.S. and elsewhere.

However, another class of toxic compounds that were developed around the same time — perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS), with some of the same environmental and health concerns — continue to be used in a host of consumer products and building materials. They are now found in the bodies of virtually all humans and are considered to be ubiquitous throughout the web of life.

When we think about what materials to incorporate into the construction of the places where we live and work, do we really want to use any product containing toxic, persistent chemicals?

The Hitchcock Center Living Building during construction. All materials used in the building were vetted against a Red List of toxic “no use” chemicals. Submitted Photo/Jessica Schultz

By using toxic materials, we are sacrificing our own health over generations, as well as degrading the environment that sustains all life. Non-toxic materials in the building structure or inside the building itself are as important as energy and water conservation in the built environment. On average, Americans spend up to 90 percent of our time indoors and these spaces can concentrate our exposures to toxins like the PFAS, above and beyond commonly known problems like radon, molds and second-hand smoke.

I’ve worked as part of a team on the Hitchcock Center’s Living Building Challenge environmental center. The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is a U.S.-based international certification program and advocacy tool offering a holistic vision for the built environment. One goal of the challenge is to build without using the worst-in-class toxic chemicals, also known as “The Red List,” and in so doing, apply market pressures on the building material industry to produce reformulated, safer products.

PFAS are just one class of chemicals prohibited from living buildings. Why do the LBC guidelines prohibit them? PFAS are used in products like stain- and water-resistant carpets and fabrics as well as other products that resist grease, water and oil. As far as we know, they do not degrade in the environment and can be passed from species to species and from mother to fetus. This is the opposite of what we want in our homes and workplaces.

Eliminating the purchase of materials containing these and other chemicals in buildings is a market-based strategy for change. Consider several better-known chemicals and chemical families, also on the Red List of banned toxics: BPA (in plastics and epoxy resins), formaldehyde (in composite wood products and insulation), phthalates (in vinyl flooring and adhesives), asbestos, lead, mercury and PVC are all among the current list. As market pressures prevail, companies are forced to change formulations which can in turn help protect everyone at every stage of a product’s lifecycle. Companies are hearing the advocacy message and are working to change formulations toward safer water-based and other “green chemistry” options.

Traditional industrial chemistry has led us to a cycle of toxic production, testing in the general population, costly environmental clean-ups and human (and animal) death and disease. The alternative is a pathway aligned with biomimicry, or nature’s solutions, toward the development of products that can help solve human challenges without injurious side effects.

So what can you do if you don’t want to, or can’t, build a Living Building? I recommend asking for and choosing products that have received certifications or labels and learning what those declarations actually certify to help understand what you are buying. I acknowledge that it can be overwhelming. It’s not enough for a product to say it’s “free” of one or several bad chemicals. Select one or more material priorities for the project at hand. Look at what will be your greatest exposure or largest material use — insulation, wood products, paints and stains, flooring — and use those as your starting point for focusing selection on healthy products.

There are many resources available, but here are a few to get you started: Environmental Working Group, Toxics Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell, Silent Spring Institute, The Red List, Declare Label, and Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

If you’d like to learn more about the story of PFAS, check out the new documentary, “The Devil We Know” (, to learn more about the community and class action lawsuit that ultimately exposed the dangers of this chemical.

You don’t have to put up a whole new building to benefit from the LBC program’s approach. Whether you’re renovating an existing structure or making decisions about a new home or business, their guidelines can lead you to a safer home or workplace, and help bring about a cleaner environment for everyone.

Jessica Schultz is the communication and living building coordinator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, where she enjoys leading building tours for local and international visitors. She has studied sustainability and environmental management at Harvard and healthy materials at Parsons School of Design. She is Living Future Accredited through the International Living Future Institute. Regular tours of the Hitchcock Center’s Living Building are offered twice monthly — first Fridays at 4 p.m. and third Wednesdays at noon. Learn more at

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

2 responses to “How do we build and live in toxin-free buildings?”

  1. Joanna Brown says:

    This is a very helpful article. I wonder if the Hitchcock Center could offer a public program about choices for homeowners who are wanting to replace flooring, paint, or improve insulation? I certainly would attend.

    • Jessica Schultz says:

      Hi Joanna, Thank you for the suggestion and encouragement to do this. I have already passed along the suggestion to our program coordinator and will help brainstorm how to structure such a program most effectively. It makes a lot of sense and would be helpful to a lot of our community, I think. Best, Jessica

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