Toxic and Non-Toxic Houses
Why are green builders obsessed with toxins?
Are green builders more fearful than most Americans? It would certainly appear so, since so many of them show signs of an almost paranoid obsession with toxins.
If you Google “green building + toxic,” you’ll be flooded with 354,000 results. Distributors of green building materials routinely advertise that their products are “non-toxic.” The implication, of course, is that conventional building materials from your local lumberyard are toxic. One supplier even advertises “non-toxic” plaster. Who knew that conventional plaster could cause illness or death?
In an article for Builders Exchange magazine, Paul Novack, the director of sustainability at a Brooklyn, N.Y., building material supplier, wrote, “The fastest growing market in green building is the owner who understands the health dangers of using conventional construction products. A designer or contractor who can become an expert in non-toxic products will soon become a sought-after green contractor in his market.”
Picking up the same theme, a blogger reporting on one of Novack's seminars wrote, “Toxics, toxics, toxics. They are all around us, especially in our homes and offices, according to speakers Cameron Lory and Paul Novak at GreenHome NYC’s monthly forum, Non-toxic Building Materials.”
“Toxic” has a simple definition; it means “poisonous.” Are U.S. lumberyards actually filled with poisonous building materials? Are federal regulatory agencies totally asleep? Opinions differ, but many green building advocates are eager to answer “Yes!” to both questions.
From my perspective, however, any builder touting the virtues of “non-toxic” building materials needs to step back for a moment. For one thing, most generalizations about the toxicity of conventional building materials are wildly unscientific. Second, it’s important to remember that builders shouldn’t be providing medical advice.
So what should do you do if a potential client says, “My son has asthma. Can you build me a non-toxic house?” A good response might be, “If your son has medical issues, you should talk to your doctor about ways to accommodate your son’s needs. Once your doctor has made recommendations, I’ll do my best to help. But I can’t make any special health claims about the homes I build.”
Toxins are a job for regulators, not builders
There’s no reason to believe that homes built from conventional materials are “toxic homes.” Every American has every reason to expect that all of the building materials sold in a conventional lumberyard are non-toxic. If any builder has evidence that a specific building material is actually toxic, the solution is regulatory, not architectural. In other words, it’s time to write a letter to your representative, print up some leaflets, or lobby the government for tighter regulations.
It’s not the job of architects or builders to provide homeowners with advice on obscure chemicals that may or may not affect asthma sufferers, and builders shouldn’t be making health claims about their homes. A builder who repeats unscientific information picked up on the Internet ends up sounding like a snake-oil salesman — or like a weapons dealer who exaggerates the threat of terrorism in order to justify preparations for war.
To wax philosophical, there’s an additional problem with the “toxins, toxins, everywhere” mindset: it generates fear, and fear is corrosive to spiritual health.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Understanding R-Value.”
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