What’s new in WELL v2: Materials

What’s new in WELL v2: Materials

Thursday, October 25, 2018
/ By:
Nicholaus Johnson

WELL Concepts
v2 Materials

Why materials matter

Have you ever noticed how much we rely on chemical-based materials in our daily lives? Over the last 150 years, the chemicals industry has become integral to a number of sectors that have played a major role in improving life expectancy and quality of life. As the global population grows and urban centers expand in size and number, the demand for material goods and the production of chemicals used in these materials is expected to rise. In fact, from 2000 to 2010 alone, global chemical output increased by 84%, and many of these chemicals are used in the construction industry. While many chemicals have been instrumental in improving our quality of life, the documented health risks associated with some chemicals and the lack of adequate health research for others warrants scrutiny regarding their continued and widespread use.

We are fundamentally dependent upon at least 25 chemical elements for the proper functioning of biological processes. For example, iron is crucial for the production of red blood cells that transfer oxygen in your lungs to tissues throughout your body. Not all chemicals, however, are created equal. Some chemicals are toxic in excess, including iron, while exposures to others are inherently toxic such as lead.

These toxic chemicals can impact human health through a combination of factors including the exposure pathway (i.e. ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption), the strength and timing of the exposure, the particular chemical properties and the underlying health of the exposed individual. Once inside our bodies, these chemicals are processed through metabolic pathways, during which the normal functioning of cells and the systems that they support - including our immune, nervous and respiratory systems - can become compromised. An example of this phenomenon can be seen with benzene, a volatile organic compound found in a variety of building materials that when metabolized, can become carcinogenic.

A commonly discussed example of how our environments can expose us to known or potentially harmful chemicals is in the case of lead. Lead poisoning is especially pronounced in children and can result in a variety of negative health outcomes in both children and adults. Exposure to lead continues to be mediated through a number of routes, just two of which include outdated water systems and lead-based paint that is still widely produced for industrial use. Unfortunately, both of these remain common routes of exposure to lead for children. This persistent risk has prompted a joint effort between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to eliminate all lead-based paints by 2020.

Another poignant example of the health risks that result from exposure to potentially toxic chemicals are those involved in the manufacture, maintenance and disposal of materials. Communities may also experience increased health risks due to the disposal of these hazardous materials in nearby landfills and incinerators, which can impact their local air and water quality. Furthermore, those tasked with the maintenance and remediation of legacy materials, such as asbestos and lead-based materials commonly found in older buildings, are similarly affected by increased health risks. While occupational health and safety standards have been established and improved in the U.S. and other developed countries, similarly stringent standards are often lacking in developing countries.

Materials in WELL v2

The brand new Materials concept in The WELL v2™ Pilot represents a proactive approach toward the mitigation of these public health threats by focusing on the key sources responsible for many harmful exposures. This concept also moves beyond restrictions, and actively promotes transparency regarding the source, composition and emissions of construction and furnishing materials. As such, it combines standards from the Air concept in WELL v1 with new complementary standards meant to address the full scope of exposure risks posed by materials throughout their lifecycle.

The standards in the first two preconditions of this concept may sound familiar as they have migrated from the Air concept (Feature 11) in WELL v1, with the expanded intent of limiting exposures at the source before indoor air quality is affected. The first of these preconditions (X01: Fundamental Material Precautions) focuses on reducing exposure risks faced by consumers and workers alike by limiting or restricting outright the use of materials that contain hazardous substances such as asbestos, mercury and lead. Complementing this effort of eliminating our reliance on hazardous materials is the second precondition (X02: Hazardous Material Abatement), which focuses on ensuring that the health of both occupants and workers is safeguarded during maintenance and abatement activities.

These standards are preconditions because while products like asbestos-based insulation are considered legacy materials in the U.S. - they were primarily used in the past and have since been nearly eliminated from modern use - this is not always the case in many other countries. For example, 2 million tons of asbestos are still used around the world each year, placing an untold number of consumers and workers at risk. The intent of these preconditions then is to ensure a base level of material health that projects around the world can benefit from.

The third and final precondition (X03: Outdoor Structures) also migrated from the Air concept in WELL v1 and was created with the understanding that material health is not limited to indoor spaces. This feature establishes standards for the assessment and possible remediation of lead-based paint and turf, in addition to the avoidance of lumber products that contain cancer-causing chemicals such as Chromium IV. In moving to a new Materials concept, these air-quality-based standards now promote the use of recyclable, environmentally friendly and least harmful plastics available.

In some instances, hazardous materials may already be installed, but occupants may not be affected by them. In these cases, significant health threats may result primarily from activities that disturb these materials. For example, undamaged and undisturbed asbestos-based insulation that is properly sealed is unlikely to pose a significant health threat to indoor occupants. Disturbing these materials through an abatement process, however, introduces the possibility of exposure for both occupants and abatement workers. The best approach in these instances may be the in-place management of these hazardous materials. In light of this, WELL v2 also introduces new requirements (X05: In-Place Management) to address the maintenance of previously installed hazardous materials that pose minimal risk to occupant health.

Another new feature in WELL v2 (X06: Site Remediation) addresses environmental exposures where land has been contaminated with toxic substances due to previous industrial activities. If left untreated, contaminated soil on these sites can leach toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater or surface waters, in addition to volatizing and affecting indoor air in buildings on the premises. This feature introduces standards that require both a site assessment and remediation plan of contaminated sites prior to construction. The intent behind this feature is to improve how we address the ways in which materials impact human health in the built environment throughout their lifecycle.

The features of the new Materials concept explored here highlight the comprehensive view of material health taken with the WELL v2 Pilot. The standards that have been developed combine the most up-to-date health research with a nuanced understanding of how we interact with materials on a daily basis. With this approach, this new concept will support current and evolving consumer demand for building materials with limited health impacts throughout their lifecycle.

You can learn more about the new Materials concept here.

Impact and evolution

The rapidly growing number of chemicals in production coupled with the rise in raw material usage means that materials will continue to have tremendous potential to affect our everyday lives. As these materials continue to evolve, so too will WELL to ensure that materials are used safely, responsibly and transparently.

This new Materials concept in WELL v2 was developed with the intent of impacting the ways in which we interact with this growing number of materials throughout the production, maintenance, disposal and recycling processes. In addition to supporting consumer demand by requiring the reduction of materials containing hazardous chemicals, this new concept’s impact can be seen in its promotion of those materials with non-toxic ingredients that are fully disclosed to consumers. At IWBI we believe that occupants should have both the knowledge and ability to choose safe materials for the purposeful construction of healthy environments.

Moving forward, the Materials concept will continue to evolve under the guidance of the Materials advisory. This extraordinary, global group of engineers, architects, material specialists and designers has and will continue to provide invaluable guidance regarding the development, implementation, feasibility and impact of standards in the Materials concept.

Nicholaus Johnson joins the International WELL Building Institute with a strong background in medical anthropology and as a current graduate student in the Environmental Health Sciences department at the Yale School of Public Health. As an environmental health research intern he supports the Standard Development team in the continuous development of the WELL Building Standard and the evolution of the Materials concept