As the WHO has pointed out in its ‘Guidelines for indoor air quality’, hazardous substances emitted from buildings, construction materials and indoor equipment or due to human activities indoors, such as combustion of fuels for cooking or heating, lead to a broad range of health problems.
Yet, for a long time, there was little awareness of the gravity or scope of the problem. For example, it wasn’t until people started reporting a range of health complaints – from skin complaints and respiratory ailments to eye, ear, nose and throat irritations – that the construction methods and materials used started to be more closely investigated. The upshot has been, to date, a spate of recommendations and guidelines on building designs, locations and materials’ use. A great deal of research is ongoing into the sources and types of indoor air pollution, although, as the Joint Reseach Centre of the European Commission writes: “Assessing air exposure and health risks in buildings is a complex issue due to a wide number and type of sources and pollutants, exposure levels and health implications as well as the differences in cultural habits, living style, building stock and climates across the EU. We have been working to develop a holistic approach for the built environment in support of relevant EU policies which will make it safer, healthier, more energy efficient and sustainable.”
Nonetheless, European countries are trying to tackle some of these sources of indoor air pollution Traditional construction materials contribute to contaminants such as VOCs, formaldehyde, particulates and fibres. According to Erik Lebret from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in the Netherlands, ‘we are trying to substitute more toxic substances with less toxic substances or to find processes that reduce emissions, as in the case of formaldehyde emissions from plywood. Another example can be seen with the reduction of certain radon-emitting materials used in wall construction. These materials were used in the past but their use has since been restricted.’
New eco-innovative building materials may be able to provide a healthier indoor environment both by substituting source of contamination and by elimination of contaminants arisen from other indoor sources. The EU-funded OSIRYS Project aims to develop safe, energy-efficient and affordable new eco-innovative, forest based composites for façades and interior partitions to improve indoor air quality in new buildings and retrofitting projects.
The solutions being pioneered by the OSIRYS project include bio-composite insulation panels composed of a 100% bioresin matrix reinforced with flax, jute and cork, which have extremely low VOC levels and an inherent resistance to fire and chemicals; moreover, cork materials offer excellent acoustic performance (noise impact and air born sound), thermal comfort, waterproofing and anti-vibration solutions). Replacement of metal profiles with bio-composite profiles incorporating additives such as graphene nanoplatelets, bio-composite panels with improved performance, bio-adhesives with low volatile organic compound (VOC) content, and novel photocatalytic coatings for indoor panels. Foamed bio-based thermoplastics are being developed for the middle layer of interior walls. They are physically expanded, bio-based, closed-cell foam produced by a thermoplastic extrusion process and it will both enhance the thermal and sound insulation properties of the wall and stabilize the wall structure.
The OSIRYS project will run through May 2017 and is being coordinated by Dr. Miriam Garcia of the Spanish research, development and innovation group TECNALIA.