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Priority chemical pollutants PDF Print E-mail

Many untested synthetic chemicals are commonly found in everyday building materials and products and the impact they may have on our health and the environment is largely unknown.

According to the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging: “There are over 38,000 chemicals in use, the majority of which have not been assessed for health, safety and environmental risks. Indeed, recent analysis by the European Union has estimated that some 75% of all industrial chemicals traded globally lack adequate health, safety and/or environmental information”.

Bio-accumulative chemicals

Bio-accumulative chemicals are those chemicals that increase in concentration in an organism or in the food chain over time.

No levels of bio-accumulative chemicals in our bodies or environment can be considered ‘safe’. The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended that: “Where chemicals are found in elevated concentrations in biological fluids such as breast milk, they should be removed from the market immediately”.

Two chemical groups that are currently under the spotlight for their ability to bio-accumulate are the polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) and perfluorochemicals (PFCs). These chemical groups are found in a number of household items and building materials including polyurethane, rubber, paints and lacquers, PVC and some textiles, wires and cables, carpets, insulation panels, furniture.

Perfluorochemicals (PFOS and PFOA) are found in clothing, cosmetics and non-stick cookware, coatings on carpets, textiles, paper and leather. PFOS is highly bio-accumulative and has been shown to cause cancer, liver damage, developmental and reproductive effects.

Further information see:

UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (2003)

Clean Production Action

National Toxics Network Inc.

Evidence of exposure to bio-accumulative chemicals

The World Wide Fund for Nature’s DetoX campaign took blood samples from 47 volunteers from 17 EU countries to analyse them for 101 predominantly persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic synthetic chemicals.

Thirteen chemicals were found in every blood sample, including DDE (a metabolite of DDT), hexachlorobenzene (HCB), PCB, seven different perfluorinated compounds, Di Ethyl Phthalate (DEHP) and Brominated Diphenyl Ether (BDE).

The chemical found in the highest concentration in blood serum was deca-BDE, a brominated flame retardant commonly used in household items and materials. In whole blood the phthalate (DEHP) was most commonly found in the highest concentration.

Further information see:

WWF Chemical Check Up

Key chemical pollutants

Researchers in indoor air pollution have identified a number of key chemical pollutants of concern in indoor environments:

Building materials that emit a range of chemical pollutants include:

  • Adhesives and sealants
  • Insulation (eg foaming and urea formaldehyde foam insulation)
  • Asphalt
  • Plywood and laminated veneer timbers
  • Reconstituted wood-based panels (eg MDF, particleboard)
  • Glued laminated timbers
  • Plastic laminates
  • Paints
  • Stains and varnishes
  • Wallpaper and vinyl coverings
  • Carpet
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Furnishings and furniture
  • Wool and polyester fabrics (including treatments for insects, water repellency mildew proofing, fire retardants and stain guarding)

Other materials of concern during renovation and building may include:

Further information see:

Dept. of Health and Aging NICNAS Discussion Paper ‘Promoting safer chemical use: towards better regulation of chemicals in Australia” (2006)

Steve Brown, Indoor air Pollution, State of the Environment Report (1997)

Jo Immig, Sarah Rish and Steve Brown, Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for Sydney Olympic Facilities, CSIRO BCE Technical Report TR97/3 (1997)

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