Building Interiors an Important Source of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals to Children

Jim Vallette - February 25, 2013

An exhaustive study by the World Health Organization / United Nations Environment Programme fingers building materials as major sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and calls for the disclosure of chemical contents in products: “(O)ver the past decade it has become clear that humans, in particular small children, are… exposed to EDCs via dust and particles in indoor environments like homes, schools, childcare centres, and offices...” The report notes that a large number of chemicals are used as additives in indoor materials as well as other products found in the home, and these compounds can leak from materials into food or onto dust that is ingested primarily by toddlers and infants.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a division of the US National Institutes of Health, “Endocrine disruptors... may mimic or interfere with the function of hormones in the body. Endocrine disruptors may turn on, shut off, or modify signals that hormones carry and thus affect the normal functions of tissues and organs.”[1] As the chart below shows, the WHO/UNEP report documents that incidences of diseases associated with endocrine disruption are on the rise. This coincides with a rise in the production and use of endocrine disrupting chemicals such as phthalates (from low levels in the 1940s to 3.5 million metric tons/year today) and brominated flame retardants (whose global production doubled from 204,000 tons in 1998 to 410,000 in 2008).[2]

Rising Incidences of Health Impacts Associated with EDCs[3]

Autism 1:110 in 2007
increased from under 5:10,000 in 1970, globally
Childhood Asthma Doubled in 20 years, to 9.4% in 2010
U.S. children, 0-17 years of age
Testicular Cancer Up to 400% rise
since 1967 in Baltic countries
Preterm Births 30% increase
since 1981 in US, UK & Scandinavia
Low Birth Weight 19% increase
from 1990 to 2010 in US
Pediatric Brain Cancer 7% increase
from 1995 to 2007 in US

Healthy Building Network

The WHO/UNEP report, State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012, traces these exposures to chemicals widely used in building materials. One of the profiled chemicals is the phthalate, DEHP, used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flexible. The report states that researchers found “exposure to PVC flooring and/or PVC wall covering material was correlated with airway symptoms in children… (and) an association between the concentration of DEHP in indoor dust and asthma and wheezing in children.”[4]

The study also highlights other chemicals that HBN’s Pharos Project has identified in building products, including bisphenol A, a key ingredient of polycarbonate plastics and UV-cured flooring finishes; triclosan, an antimicrobial agent; and D4, the cyclosiloxane that I discussed earlier this month in a Signal article about silicone adhesives.

The WHO/UNEP report explicitly calls for the type of disclosure that would be rewarded by the new LEED Materials and Resources Credit which has been proposed in LEED V.4 and aggressively opposed by chemical company members of the USGBC, concluding: “Many sources of EDCs are not known because of a lack of chemical constituent declarations in products, materials and goods. We need to know where the exposures are coming from.”

Last week the USGBC announced an unexpected 6th public comment period on the proposed credit. This development heightened concerns that the credit – which is voluntary and can be earned by addressing as little as 20% of the materials used on a project – will be further compromised in a concession to chemical manufacturers eager to avoid meaningful disclosure. If ever there was a time to hold the line on the credit, the new WHO/UNEP report makes clear that the time is now.


[1] Statement of Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as of the National Toxicology Program (NTP). NIH and NTP are entities of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Testimony before Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment United States House of Representatives, February 25, 2010.

[3] Sources: State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012, WHO/UNEP, 2013; P. Landrigan and L. Goldman, "Children's Vulnerability To Toxic Chemicals: A Challenge And Opportunity To Strengthen Health and Environmental Policy," Health Affairs, May 2011; "Asthma: Percentage of Children Ages 0-17 with asthma, selected years 1980-2010," Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, as viewed on, Feb. 22, 2012; "Low Birthweight: Percentage of Infants Born With Low Birthweight, 1980–2010," Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, as viewed on, Feb. 22, 2012; Supplementary Table 8. Age-specific trends in brain cancer incidence in the United States during 1992–2007 (SEER 13) and 1995–2007 (NAACCR combined) by sex, for all races and for whites, in Kohler et al., "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975–2007, Featuring Tumors of the Brain and Other Nervous System," JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2011) 103(9): 714–736.

[4] State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012: An assessment of the state of the science of endocrine disruptors prepared by a group of experts for the United Nations Environment Programme and World Health Organization.

Tags: Phthalates

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