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  • Writer's pictureSteve Block

Improve Indoor Air Quality with Biobased Building Materials

Poor indoor air quality can cause or contribute to the development of infections, lung cancer, and chronic lung diseases such as asthma.1 Some construction products, like paint, furniture, wood flooring, and carpets, can make indoor air unhealthy. Many everyday building products use materials containing formaldehyde, which is often released for an extended period following installation. Formaldehyde inside buildings poses significant health risks to occupants.2 This colorless gas can adversely affect human health, particularly when indoor concentrations are elevated. The impact of formaldehyde on people within buildings is multifaceted and can manifest in various health issues. 

Formaldehyde is a respiratory irritant, leading to watery eyes, sore throat, coughing, and nasal congestion.

Individuals with respiratory conditions like asthma may experience exacerbated symptoms in environments with elevated formaldehyde levels.

Skin irritation is another concern, with direct contact or exposure to heightened formaldehyde levels potentially causing rashes or discomfort. Vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions, may be more susceptible to these health effects. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde in group 1 (human carcinogen)3.

To mitigate these risks, it’s wise to use building materials with low formaldehyde emissions, such as:

  • Wood panels: Products like particle board and MDF that use soy-based adhesives rather than traditional formaldehyde-containing adhesives. 

  • Bioplastics: Derived from renewable sources like corn starch, sugarcane, or other plant-based materials, they are used to create bioplastic composites that can be used for a variety of applications, including flooring, panels, and insulation.

  • Biobased Insulation Materials: Several insulation materials are now made from biobased sources. Examples include insulation made from soy-based polyols, recycled cotton denim, and cellulose insulation derived from recycled paper or agricultural fibers.

  • Industrial Hemp: While not a chemical, hemp is a rapidly renewable resource that does not naturally contain formaldehyde and can be used in flooring, furniture, and cabinetry.

Many applications that use biobased materials have a reduced carbon footprint, lower VOC emissions, and even performance benefits compared to alternative petrochemical-based materials. As renewable, low-toxicity materials that promote indoor environmental quality, biobased building materials contribute to meeting the requirements for the International Green Construction Code and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification system.

The pervasive presence of formaldehyde in indoor environments underscores the need for proactive measures to minimize human exposure. Reducing formaldehyde exposure by using building materials that use sustainable raw materials contributes to creating healthier indoor spaces and safeguarding occupants from respiratory issues, headaches, and potential long-term health implications.

1.    American Lung Association

2.    Public Health. 2023 May:218:186-196. Epub 2023 Apr 13.

3.    Nielsen, G.D., Larsen, S.T. & Wolkoff, P. Recent trend in risk assessment of formaldehyde exposures from indoor air. Arch Toxicol 87, 73–98 (2013). 


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