While we spend much of our time concerned with what’s on our plates and what materials make up our everyday products, there’s an equally important element that affects our health: the buildings we live and work in. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has found that 99% of the global population is breathing air that’s highly polluted and exceeds the WHO’s guidelines - and that’s not just from outdoor pollution.

You might be surprised to learn just how impactful the elements that make up your home, office, and other buildings are to your health as well as the well-being of the planet. This article will cover exactly how those building materials cause indoor air pollution, how they affect us, and how to choose non-toxic options.

How do building materials affect health? 

woman laying on couch with a headache and a cup of tea on the table

When we think of air pollution, we often think of contaminated outdoor air, like smog. While outdoor air pollution, like that which results from cars and industrial facilities, is certainly a concern, indoor air pollution may be an even greater issue. That’s because most people spend 90% of their time indoors. In fact, research shows that the air in our homes and buildings can be even more polluted than outdoor air.

Building materials are one of the biggest factors that affect indoor air quality. While we used to create structures from all-natural materials, like clay and stone, we began creating other building materials with synthetic compounds during the Industrial Revolution. As we used more and more of these, the toxicity level in buildings grew.

Each toxic building material (and its resulting indoor air pollution) can affect our health in different ways. Below are some of the most common.


Asbestos is used in insulation, adhesives, flooring, and more. It is a known carcinogen. The inhalation of asbestos fibers can lead to respiratory issues, Mesothelioma, lung cancer, and Asbestosis. These diseases can have delayed development, meaning that they can take 10 to 40 years to display themselves after exposure.

hand wearing blue glove holding a piece of asbestos fibers with tweezers 


Formaldehyde is often found in pressed wood products like particleboard, fiberboard, and plywood paneling. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and respiratory irritant that can cause burning and discomfort in the eyes and throat. It can also cause nausea and difficulty breathing.

Pressed wood particle boards

Phthalates are found in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is used in carpet backing, flooring, wall coverings, and more. Some phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which can alter human hormones and may have serious effects on the human reproductive system.

Corner of carpet flipped over showing carpet backing

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

PBDEs are flame retardants that we put on plastic building materials, like insulation. People are exposed to PBDEs via house dust. In animal studies, PBDEs have been linked to toxicity of the liver and thyroid. They’ve also been associated with developmental and reproductive toxicity, as well as developmental neurotoxicity.

Man wearing mask inspecting roof insulation during construction

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Although VOCs aren’t building materials, they’re important to mention here. They are emitted as gasses from certain building materials, like paint and varnish, and can have short and long-term health effects. This includes respiratory irritation, nausea, headaches, visual disorders, memory impairment, and more.

Man standing on ladder painting on top of the kitchen cabinets


How do building materials affect the environment?

hands on field inspecting soil with hands

These toxic building materials can impact the environment in a variety of ways. When we tear down homes using these materials, they often end up in a landfill. Or, if a natural disaster occurs, they can end up scattered around the area. In any case, they can go on to contaminate the nearby soil and water sources. If they find their way into a water system, they can also cause health effects to aquatic organisms.

Meanwhile, VOCs can affect outdoor air quality. When they react to nitrogen oxide in the air, they can contribute to the formation of ozone at ground level. This can lead to diseases in plants, issues with seed production, and heat waves.

Choosing building materials for health and sustainability.

sheep grazing on hillside at sunset

We can avoid coming into contact with harmful building materials and their resulting indoor air pollution entirely by choosing better options for our own homes. In fact, there are more healthy alternatives than ever to these products. A few examples include:

  • Wool insulation instead of traditional insulation
  • Foreverboard (made of magnesium oxide) instead of traditional drywall
  • ECOS or Envirosafe paint instead of traditional paints

You can also look for certifications, like Greenguard or LEED, to ensure that building material is safe and sustainable.

At LIM Living, we carefully choose our building materials with your health and the planet in mind. This includes materials like Havelock wool insulation, FSC-certified windows, and LEED-certified windows. Learn more about LIM Living’s commitment to sustainable living here.

October 30, 2023