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Indoor Air Quality: The importance of building and cladding materials

11 July 2023
Article by Gabriela Ventura, INEGI's researcher in the area of Indoor Air Quality.

Indoor air quality has gained relevance due to the many studies at a global level that have demonstrated the effects on people's health and well-being caused by a polluted indoor environment. The World Health Organization has recognized indoor air pollution as one of the risk factors for human health, and several countries have implemented legislation that limits the concentration levels of various pollutants indoors.

However, in order to achieve good indoor air quality, it's necessary to know the main sources that contribute to the problem, from poor outdoor air quality to poor ventilation, passing through building and coating materials, the activities carried out by occupants and the products of consumption. It is therefore important to think about this issue in an integrated way right at the design stage, providing for adequate ventilation and selecting construction materials and low-emission coatings. These gain particular relevance, right away, because they represent a larger emitting area, leading to the fact that they have already been subject to regulation in many European countries, although not in Portugal.

Among the main pollutants regulated in material emissions are formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are a very large group of different compounds, which can have a very variable toxicological potential. Among them we can find the carcinogenic benzene, but also less toxic substances such as heptane.

How are construction material emissions assessed?

LQAI - INEGI's Indoor Air Quality Laboratory has over the years collaborated with various national and European industries in the characterization of building materials in terms of polluting emissions, witnessing a growing interest in this topic.

At LQAI, materials are subjected to tests in a test chamber, where their emissions are quantified and compared with criteria established by various legislators and/or international organizations. The best known in Portugal are the European eco-label, or the A+ label, resulting from French legislation and the German labeling systems, such as AgBB and EMICODE.

Contributing to the industry's interest in carrying out these tests is the obligation to test materials when exported to France or Germany, but also the emergence of environmentally certified buildings. Among the best known certification systems are the North American LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) and the British BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). In both systems, buildings are analyzed in several ways, one of which is the indoor air quality. All evaluated factors give certain credits which, weighted to reflect the importance of each category, result in a classification of the building in terms of its environmental sustainability. In terms of indoor air quality, the choice of low-emission materials gives credit to the building, helping it to obtain a higher rating. Therefore, it is important for companies to have their materials tested, as they will be more easily chosen to integrate buildings with claims to be certified from an environmental point of view.

In conclusion, it is very important to characterize the various sources so that we can choose less polluting options that are more environmentally and health-friendly. Making companies aware of this issue is essential.

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