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close this bookBuilding Materials and Health (UNCHS/HABITAT; 1997; 74 pages)
View the documentABBREVIATIONS
View the documentFOREWORD
View the documentINTRODUCTION
View the documentANNEX
View the documentREFERENCES


Since environment and health rank among the most important areas of social concern today, and given the variety of hazards which need to be addressed, and the different groups exposed to those hazards, a range of strategies needs to be considered. Before such strategies are elaborated, however, there is the need first to consider the key constraints to promoting practical strategies for control of hazards associated with building materials.

Insufficient information

There is insufficient knowledge regarding the nature and the severity of health hazards of some of the materials mainly due to:


• The rapid rate of technological change which continuously introduces new products;

• Time lag between the exposure of humans to health hazards and the appearance or diagnosis of chronic diseases which could be two decades or more; and

The difficulty of assessing the effects of chronic low-level exposure of materials through toxicology and epidemiology. Toxicological research provides early indication of the possible health effects of new materials, e.g. by means of experimental work on laboratory animals and/or tissue samples, but the relationship of such work to health effects in man and true environmental conditions is difficult to interpret. On the other hand, epidemiological research (the analysis of morbidity and their correlation with possible health hazards), of necessity lags behind material developments (75).

Inadequate information greatly inhibits the ability of the construction industry and other stake-holders in effectively responding to the challenges of controlling the health hazards associated with building materials. Therefore, there is an urgent need to design programmes at industry, national and international levels to raise the understanding of the health implications of building materials on a continuing basis.

Inadequate Public Awareness

Public awareness of the health hazards of building materials and the built-environment is low. Additionally, many decision-makers are not fully informed or aware of the health implications of the building materials. Governments, professional bodies and research organizations need to take an active role in providing information and in promoting awareness among the public.

Differences in perception of risks

There are differences in the perception of what is just or fair in public policy and what are the appropriate threshold limits in the public eye (76). For example due to insufficient information about the hazards of a certain material, the question arises whether to prohibit the use of the material until it is proven safe, or to allow its use, until it is proven harmful. There are also differences in the degree and selectivity of the risks posed. Chemicals that degenerate in the general environment or are used in diluted form may present low risks to the general population and confer important benefits. Similarly, materials such as asbestos may save lives as fire retardants or brake linings. In such cases, the general risk may be low and almost randomly distributed, and there is thus a certain equity in the use of these substances. But if selected groups of chemical or asbestos workers, for example, are exposed to severe health risks, there is a strong argument that such situations are not equitable, even if more lives are saved than lost by their continued use (76). This partly explains the continued use of certain harmful pesticides for timber treatment purposes in the building industry while they have been banned in all other situations (77). The continued use of asbestos while bodies like the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers (78) are advocating its total ban further supports this view. This calls for the co-operation in the harmonization and application of international standards and legislation.

Conflict of interest

There are difficulties in balancing the immediate costs of health improvements against long term benefits. Short-term and known considerations usually win out. For example, in a work environment action is mostly directed to limit injuries which are dramatic and whose costs are reflected in immediately perceived pain and in workmen’s compensation premiums, but initiatives to safeguard the longer - term health of the workers are often limited. No doubt the management is responsible for providing a “safe” workplace, however, in extreme cases the management could maintain that costly health and safety demands would render the business unprofitable, thus depriving workers of their jobs (76). Further, several of the most serious health hazards and their related effects take a long time to manifest. The uncertainty of future benefits would make it less likely that adequate action would be taken (76).

Challenges for designers of buildings

Designers often have a number of conflicting criteria to resolve. For example: the designers need to balance the risks to health against the cost of providing protection; it may not be financially or practically feasible to guard against some of the ill-defined health risks: they also need to balance the risks of disease from pest infestation or timber decay against the risks from the chemicals used to protect against them, or need for adequate ventilation for a healthy indoor environment against the need to reduce the energy consumed in heating or cooling incoming air. In the absence of any clear definitions of acceptable risk, designers often implicitly make such judgments with little general guidance.

Problem with alternatives

One of the control strategies involves the use of alternatives. Alternatives, however, are not available in all situations. For example, there are limited options at present for the substitution of volatile organic chemicals in paints. In such situations, the substitution option will not be feasible. It has been found also that alternatives which were at one time recommended have their own separate hazards. This is particularly a problem when the substitution option is new and untested. Consequently, avoidance of one type of risk may simply introduce a different and perhaps less well understood one. Research and professional institutions must be increasingly vigilant to ensure that adequate information on new and alternative materials is provided to the public.

Inadequate regulatory mechanisms

Currently, there are no regulatory mechanisms to control some of the hazards, partly because of the lack of information or due to economic considerations. For example, regulations by way of prohibition of a certain product could have severe economic and employment consequences which legislatures may be reluctant to bring about. Where regulations exist, administrative costs and the bureaucracy involved in the implementation acts as a severe disincentive to their application. Also, materials and technologies banned in some countries are being exported to countries with lax legislation. For example, one asbestos products company relocated its manufacturing operations from its country of origin, to a developing country where a 30-fold increase in asbestos contamination was permitted within the factory (78). And in many countries, regulations are still far behind current practice. Since sustainable development requires a change in consumption patterns towards more environment friendly products and a change in investment patterns to encompass long-term needs, governments will have to formulate effective legislation and ensure adequate expenditure on research, dissemination of information and enforcement.

Inadequate collaboration

There is inadequate collaboration among the broad-range of stakeholders and actors, particularly among research institutions, the construction industry and regulatory bodies.

Additional considerations for developing countries

Additional considerations for developing countries include: an overriding development priority, the lack of manpower and local training opportunities; poor information base and inadequate dissemination of available information; lack of appropriate policies; and institutions; existing laws do not cover all aspects of health and workers welfare and are biased towards curative rather than preventive health care (62, 79).


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