Potential Chemicals Found in Building Materials

Chromated copper arsenic (CCA) in pressure treated wood
Perfluorinated compounds, including PFOA
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
Short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs)


Asbestos fibers are strong, heat-resistant, chemical-resistant, and useful in providing heat insulation. Therefore, their most common uses include floor and ceiling tiles, plasters, insulations, adhesives, wallboard, roofing materials, fireproofing materials, and cement products. Asbestos is a known carcinogen, and inhalation of asbestos fibers is known to cause respiratory problems and lung diseases such as Asbestosis, Mesothelioma, or lung cancer. All three of these diseases experience delayed development and the diseases may not manifest for 10-40 years after the initial asbestos exposure.

Asbestos that is intact, undisturbed, and in overall good condition does not necessarily pose a problem to human health. Deterioration and damage releases fibers into the air. A professional is needed to remove or repair asbestos-containing materials that are damaged or will be disturbed during a home improvement project.

Chromated Copper Arsenic (CCA) in Pressure-Treated Wood

Chromated copper arsenate (CCA) is a pesticide/preservative used to prevent rotting in lumber designed for outdoor use. CCA contains arsenic, chromium, and copper and was widely used for residential purposes in the United States from the 1970s until EPA phased it out in 2003. CCA-treated wood can be found virtually anywhere outdoor lumber is being utilized, such as play sets, decks, and picnic tables.

CCA-treated wood can be hazardous to human health because arsenic is a known carcinogen. Exposure to arsenic can cause cancer of the lung, bladder, skin, kidney, prostate, and nasal passage. Arsenic exposure can also lead to nerve damage, dizziness, and numbness. Arsenic can leach to the surface of the treated wood, becoming accessible for absorption through exposed hands and skin touching the wood surface and, especially in the case of children, ingestion through normal hand-to-mouth behavior. Arsenic can also leach into the ground surrounding the location of the treated wood.


Formaldehyde is used widely to manufacture building materials and numerous household products. It is also a by-product of combustion and certain other natural processes. Thus, it may be present in substantial concentrations both indoors and outdoors. In homes, the most significant sources of formaldehyde are likely to be pressed wood products made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. Pressed wood products made for indoor use include particleboard, hardwood plywood paneling, and medium density fiberboard, which contains a higher resin-to-wood ratio than any other UF pressed wood product and is generally recognized as being the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.

Formaldehyde is also used to add permanent-press qualities to clothing and draperies, as a component of glues and adhesives, and as a preservative in some paints and coating products. Formaldehyde, a colorless, pungent-smelling gas, is a known respiratory irritant and carcinogen. It can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million).

Perfluorinated Compounds (Including PFOA)

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are a family of fluorine-containing chemicals with unique properties to make materials stain and stick resistant. PFCs are used in wide array of consumer products and food packaging, such as microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and cleaning and personal-care products like shampoo, dental floss, and denture cleaners. Even Gore-Tex clothing contains PFCs. Although these chemicals have been used since the 1950s in countless products, they’ve been subjected to little government testing.

There are many forms of PFCs, but the two most notorious are:

  • PFOA or perfluorooctanoic acid, used to make Teflon products. PFOA is broadly toxic. It does not break down in the environment and has a half-life in the body of more than four years. PFOA is a likely human carcinogen; it causes liver, pancreatic, testicular, and mammary gland tumors in laboratory animals.
  • PFOS or perfluorooctane sulfonate, a breakdown product of chemicals, was used until 2002 in the manufacture of 3M’s Scotchgard treatment, used on carpet, furniture, and clothing. PFOS causes liver and thryoid cancer in rats. PFOS’s half-life is estimated at more than eight years.


Phthalates, called “plasticizers,” are a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible or resilient. Building materials are the largest end use for PVC. Major uses of flexible PVC in buildings include carpet backing, resilient flooring, wall coverings, acoustical ceiling surfaces, upholstery textiles, roof membranes, waterproofing membranes, and electrical cord insulation. Phthalates are nearly ubiquitous in modern society, and can also be found in toys, food packaging, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, hair spray, and shampoo. Certain phthalates are known or suspected endocrine disruptors, meaning they impact and alter the human hormone system. Phthalates are also suspected to be potent reproductive toxins, especially in boys.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

PBDEs are used as flame retardants in plastic building materials and are particularly widespread in polyurethane foam products (insulation and cushions). In May 2010, the EPA released an exposure assessment for PBDEs, providing information on the extent to which humans are exposed to and have a body burden of the chemicals. Key routes of human exposure are thought to be from their use in household consumer products, and their presence in house dust, and not from dietary routes. PBDEs have been associated in animal studies with liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and developmental neurotoxicity.

Short-Chain Chlorinated Paraffins (SCCPs)

Short-chain chlorinated paraffins’ (SCCPs) primary use is as a lubricant and coolant in metal cutting and metal forming operations – so they may be present in the life-cycle of metal building products. The second most significant use is as a secondary plasticizer in PVC in many of the same applications as the phthalate plasticizers listed above. To a lesser extent it is also used in other plastics, including acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene resins (ABS), unsaturated polyester resins, polyethylene, polypropylene, and urethane foam for rubbers, paints, adhesives, caulks, and sealants as either plasticizers or flame retardants.

Although no studies have been completed on humans, SCCPs are classified as toxic to aquatic organisms and carcinogenic to rats and mice.

Additional Resources

EPA’s Green Homes website [url] Choosing Green Materials and Products [url] EPA’s Chemical Action Plans [url] Green Building Products Coalition [url]