Building for Children

Eco Brooklyn recently completed a number of jobs in a building where there were children living. We renovated  three children’s bedrooms, two bathrooms where they bathe, and two play areas. Doing this increased our focus on using non-toxic materials and building in a manner that created no dust.

A toxin free green building process should be done in all homes, but because children’s bodies  are so much more absorptive of chemicals than adults, the harmful effect on children can be much greater if precautions are not taken.

Eco Brooklyn has a zero toxin policy in our home renovations. But that is a lot harder to accomplish than people think and we don’t always meet our goals.

The reason is that even the most harmless building material has toxins. Take sheet rock compound for example,  used to plaster the seams of sheet rock. With the exception of a very few buildings (adobe, for example), sheet rock compound is in every single building in america.

Sheet rock compound contains Formaldehyde, a known cancer causing chemical. To the trained nose, Formaldehyde is easily detected in a newly built home. True, it off-gasses very quickly and although I don’t have numbers to back it up, I feel that the Formaldehyde levels in dry compound are very small.

But what if you are building in an apartment where children are currently living, like we recently did. The apartment had a six week old baby and we were posed with the challenge of repairing some sheet rock. The family was not able to move during the renovation. This is not an ideal situation.

Our solution was to seal off the area with taped plastic walls and to make sure we had a window in the plastic enclosure.

We then created a negative vacuum in the work area by blowing a fan out the window. That way air was constantly being sucked into the enclosure and out the window. Due to this constant pressure minimal dust or toxins entered the rest of the apartment.

Likewise the workers took great pains to clean themselves before leaving the enclosure. We left the enclosure up for two days while the bulk of the Formaldehyde off-gassed out the window.

We then painted with zero voc paint, which again for a green builder like us is pushing the boundary of what we consider safe. Even though the paint may be zero voc, if it is a mainstream company (Benjamin Moore, for example) then the paint contains hundreds of chemicals, most of which have only been around for a couple generations.

Like the millions of chemicals humans have created over the past several decades, we don’t really know the long term effects of there high tech paints. You just have to smell a zero voc mainstream paint to know it isn’t harmless. It smells like toxins.

It would be great for our health if we all lived in adobe buildings, surrounded by natural materials like wood, earth and stones. I am convinced cancer rates would plummet  But most houses are not adobe. As New York green contractors our strategy is to educate ourselves as much as possible in non-toxic hypoallergenic building techniques and apply those strategies to existing conditions, which often are not ideal.

When possible we eliminate the toxins. We never use wood with Formaldehyde (often found in cabinets, flooring, counters…). All our floor finishes are natural oil based. We build a lot of clay walls. We have built a lot with non-Formaldehyde sheet rock compound, although it is more expensive and not as easy to work with.

When it is not possible we do our best to understand the risks and to reduce exposure as much as possible. Simple plastic (yuk!) walls and negative pressure techniques do wonders to reduce any dust or toxins in the living space. An educated work force takes care of the other exposure issues (simple things like removing shoes, blowing off our clothes, washing our hands….).

After considering the immediate effects of toxins like airborne gasses and dust on adults and children, we as a green building company are interested in finding and understanding environmental stressors that may contribute to more subtle and long term childhood issues like OCD, ADD and Autism.

This is part of our Build It Forward process where we are not only thinking of the current client but are also considering future generations. That is our gift that we build forward into the renovation. Likewise the client is paying a little extra to benefit people they many never even meet. This process is very different to the slash and burn building technique that dominates the industry and has caused so much harm to our world.

That extra up front building cost that we as a green building company and the client share is pennies on the dollar compared to the massive hidden costs we all end up paying later when we build with no consideration for anything but maximum up front profit.

It is the difference between paying cash for something that you then pass on for free to your children vs. paying with a credit card that has outlandish interest and that you give to your children as a death present.

With this attitude it is easy to understand our obsession with uncovering hidden costs (financial, social and ethical) and paying for them up front. If you want to be perfectly callous, you could say this for us is simply smart long term business planning. aka it is sustainable in the long run.

As we research what is smart and not smart building we never forget the myriad of  political, economic and social interests behind many of these chemicals it is hard to know the truth. For example, for decades “studies” came out saying there is no connection between cancer and tobacco…

So most of the time when we are building we have nothing but common sense to back up a lot of what we do. And we use historical reference. This means we not only look towards the newest science for guidance but we also look into the history of building in different cultures. The Eco Brooklyn office has a whole wall of books on traditional building techniques and cutting edge science techniques.

So when we build, if it makes sense to do something and we have evidence that a certain society utilized the same technique with success then for lack of any other authority we will use our best judgement to decide.

For example, historically clay walls have been used safely since the beginning of time in construction. Recently there is also mounting evidence that the negative ions in clay cause people to feel good. These are the same negative ions found after a rain storm when the air is fresh and the light is crisp.

At the same time there is evidence that one of the ingredients in clay walls contributes to cancer – silica. It is added either pure or in it’s most common form – sand. Of course people have worked with sand since the beginning of time as well.

As builders we look at all this information, determine the benefits and risks and then decide how or whether to use the green building technique. In the case of clay walls we feel that there benefits are great. The ongoing exposure to silica from the wall dusting is minor and we feel does not contribute as an environmental stressor that may contribute in aggregate to cancer.

So in the case of clay we wholeheartedly use it. Other applications, such as zero voc paint or sheet rock compound, we use but with less enthusiasm and with a lot more care in order to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

We understand we can’t eliminate all environmental stressors. Sunshine after all can become an environmental stressor that when combined with other elements (genetics, formaldahyde etc) can contribute to cancer. But we feel the benefits of sunshine far outweigh the risks and we enthusiastically encourage windows in buildings :).

The point here is that as New York green contractors we feel our role is more than to build kitchens for people. We need to educate ourselves not only in how to professionally install kitchen cabinets so they look great and work perfectly but also we need to understand our role is one of amateur doctor, educator and social activist.

Along with the normal questions like, what color are the cabinet doors, how do the hinges work and what handles does the client want, we try to ask ourselves other questions as well, questions that definitely will impact the client much more in the long run.

These questions are different for each situation but they always focus on the triple bottom line of planet, people and profit. What is the health impact on the client and the environment (is the wood free of chemicals and salvaged)? Who wins and who loses financially (are workers paid fairly)?

The questions are endless and the answers many. It is more an ongoing process than a final goal. As long as we keep at it I feel we will continue to be effective New York green contractors.

This blog was inspired by a recent article I read about chemicals and autism. Here are a list of chemicals you can be pretty sure contribute to autism (and cancer, headaches, mood swings, tiredness and just simply a shitty day). If you have time you can google the chemicals to see what products contain them.

If you don’t have time, then use your common sense. A popcorn bag made out of some sort of plastic that you put in a microwave? Duh! Save yourself some time and go smoke a cigarette instead. Not sure if a liquid is toxic? What does it smell like – a new car or a walk in the forest – hint: that new car smell gives rats tumors the size of grapefruit.

Really a better term for this than common sense is being aware of your surroundings. Most people are aware enough to notice a fire in their house. But how many are aware of the smell in their new pillow and whether it will give them cancer in 20 years? Studies show it very well might (although there are plenty of others that show it won’t….but again it is worth looking at who is pushing what study….).

The first step in becoming aware is to pay more attention to your body and to use available information both current and historic to see what works. Available info and history show that certain activities and foods work while others don’t. You don’t need to be a genius to know the basics of exercise and died to live a good life.

And yes, exercise is a great way to reduce the harm of that new paint since an increased metabolism passes the toxins our of your body faster.

Here is the list for chemicals connected to autism..

Lead
Found in paint, dust, drinking water, some canned imported food, older toys, some imported toys, lead-glazed or lead-painted pottery, and some inks.

Methylmercury
Methylmercury is not the same as ethylmercury, the form found in Thimerosal, the controversial preservative formerly used in vaccines and which some believe is linked to autism. Methylmercury is released into air and water mostly from industrial emissions. It is the form of mercury that is found in high concentrations in some fish.

PCBs
The U.S. government banned production of PCBs in 1977, but they continue to be released into the environment from hazardous waste sites and from illegal or improper dumping. PCBs are also found in some types of caulk used in building materials, including in some schools.

Organophosphate Pesticides
These make up the majority of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables ingested by pregnant women and kids in the United States.

Organochlorine Pesticides
Less common, organochlorines are still used. The most infamous organochlorine is DDT, which was fully banned in the United States in 1972.

Endocrine Disruptors
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can potentially interfere with prenatal development. There are literally hundreds of endocrine disruptors, the most well-known of which is bisphenol-A, or BPA.

Automotive Exhaust 
Toxins of concern in motor vehicle exhaust include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
These chemicals are found in an array of sources — from cigarette smoke and burning coal to industrial waste incineration and hazardous waste sites.

Brominated Flame Retardants
These fireproofing chemicals are added to pillows, vehicle seats, fabrics, and some electronics — including computers.

Perfluorinated Compounds
PFCs are found in sources as varied as water-resistant clothing, some non-stick cookware, and microwave popcorn bags.

About the author: Gennaro Brooks-Church

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