As founder of the Healthy Building Network, Bill Walsh has been an advocate for safer building materials for more than two decades. He surprised me in this interview by stressing that covid-19 and toxic building materials both present inordinate risks to disadvantaged people — and I’ve got to say that he has a point. Walsh also offers up a data-based skepticism for surfaces treated with “antimicrobial” chemical and for the marketing push we’re likely to see.
This Q&A is part of a series on covid-19 and buildings. It was edited for length and clarity, and relevant links were added after the fact. To view the others in the series, click here.
How might the covid-19 pandemic affect buildings in unexpected ways?
I hope one lesson we can take out of this is how building materials can contribute to public health strategies that address inequities and help prevent illness. Covid-19 is helping us to really understand the distribution of costs and benefits — and who pays the heaviest price. This is an illumination and an acceleration of the kind of problems that marginalized communities face. Air pollution, for instance. If you live in a polluted community, you are more susceptible to the virus. And you are also more susceptible to many other diseases. How can we call something a healthy building material if the way it’s made contributes to making a workplace or a neighborhood so unhealthy?
It’s a lot like the inequity of the people who are forced to defer healthcare because they don’t have health insurance. The bad impacts just pile on. So many of the people who have to work through all of this, who have very little support at minimizing their risks, tend to be from vulnerable communities. We see this kind of disparity with building materials, where something that is fine for occupants once installed, is actually hazardous for the people who make and install it. I hope we will take the lessons of covid-19 to encourage our building products as part of an equitable public health strategy for disease prevention.
Do you think this crisis will have a significant impact on making building materials less hazardous?
It can. One place to start is that we have a lot of immunocompromised and respiratory compromised people, and those are the people most at-risk from this virus. So the question is, how do you make people generally healthier to avoid a lot of the deaths [from covid-19]?
Building materials are made with chemicals that are associated with cancer, asthma, endocrine disruptors — the same problems that put people at higher risk [of the coronavirus]. If we reduce the use of those chemicals, we reduce the vulnerability of those compromised people.
There’s an environmental justice problem as well, particularly when you think about asthma and other risk factors — there’s a higher prevalence among people of color and other underserved communities. We can address this by putting equity at the center of our green building standards and material certifications, by taking into account manufacturing impacts.
We also have tens of thousands of chemicals that haven’t even been assessed for their impacts on human health. There’s a dramatic need for us to really do the necessary chemical hazard assessments. It underscores the need for Pharos and ChemForward [two projects that disclose and catalog information about chemicals in which HBN is involved]. We need to change from assessing chemicals in small groups to assessing them in the tens of thousands.
Do you expect a push for more toxic materials, such as cleaning materials and antimicrobial coatings on surfaces? Does this change the calculus of chemicals that might present one kind of risk, say for cancer, but be effective in lowering another risk, say for viruses?
I see more alignment than trade-offs because dealing with the virus, like reducing toxics in building materials, is really a systems problem. In both cases, the best solution is to avoid the hazard. If you maximize hazard avoidance, you minimize the more difficult trade-offs that come later. That’s a powerful lesson.
On antimicrobials coatings, we’ve carefully reviewed the science and found that there are no data to suggest that antimicrobial infused building products offer people protection from viruses. To the contrary, such claims would violate federal law. What you see is marketing that implies virus protection. But if you read the product warranties, you see that they must be maintained just the same as products that do not have antibacterial additives. So I think the greater concern is that people will let their guard down if they think an antimicrobial surface offers more protection than it actually does. Only copper building products appear to offer resistance to viruses, and even that is not 100 percent.
Look at what happened with antibacterials in soap. There was a big marketing push by industry that was really about consumer perceptions and fear, not laboratory tests. But finally the FDA came along and said there’s really no evidence that this stuff makes you safer. Plus, it can lead to more antibacterial-resistant bugs.
It turned out that ordinary soap has the best disinfectant properties. The same appears to be true for this virus. It turns out that hand-washing with soap is probably the most important thing you can get people to do right now. So sometimes it’s a simple solution.
Photo above: Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network. Courtesy of Walsh.