A Package Deal: Human and Environmental Health
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The Close Relationship of the Planet’s Health With Our Own
The importance of maintaining a healthy environment is gaining more traction as we are starting to see the dangerous effects of climate change and its adverse impact on human health. Scientists and health experts are studying factors like air pollution, droughts, soil quality and biodiversity, to name a few, and continuously uncovering more data on their relationship to our well-being. These studies show that humans need a healthy planet to enjoy optimum personal health.
“Sustainability and human health are not mutually exclusive topics by any means,” explains Suzan Somo, Senior Manager at NSF. “There is only so much someone can do to protect and enhance their health if the resources they need to achieve that lie in a planet that is sick.”
The Health Effects of Unsustainable Practices
It is no secret that we as humans need to adjust how we live to help create a more sustainable environment that allows for better overall health. By adopting environmentally friendly practices, we can decrease:
Pollution in our air causes trouble breathing, which, according to the EPA, creates neurological and cardiovascular issues and damages our reproductive and immune systems. It’s important for building products and wall coverings to have a sustainable life cycle, especially during the manufacturing and disposal periods, to help reduce this.
Substances like BPAs, phthalates and phenols used in materials like traditional packaging, PVC wall coverings and toxic adhesives can affect children’s prostate glands, brain function and behavior. According to the Mayo Clinic, they also affect adults by increasing blood pressure and have been linked to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Diminishing Natural Resources
The UN Environment Programme states that disturbance to our natural world and ecosystem by the use of natural resources negatively affects biodiversity, contributing to poor water and air quality. Additionally, Michigan State University reports that extracting and processing the materials from these natural resources contributes to half of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states that exposure from flame retardants used on furniture, mattresses, carpets, etc., can negatively impact thyroid, neurological, endocrine and immune system function as well as adversely affect the development and immune system of fetuses.
According to the EPA, municipal waste landfills are one of the largest sources of human-related methane emissions in the United States. Waste produced from building products and wall coverings contributes to this problem. Moreover, hazardous waste can contaminate land, air and water that come into contact with humans.
Water Pollution and Contamination
Contaminated water from unsustainable manufacturing practices for building materials can cause diseases, including cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio, according to the WHO.
Tips to Leverage Your Purchasing Power to Bring About Change
The good news is that we are all in control of contributing to a healthier environment, and one of the ways we can do so is by shopping more responsibly. There are several important reasons to purchase responsibly — including decreasing our environmental health risks — which positively impact human health.
Consumers can help ensure they are making a more conscientious purchasing decision by:
- Looking for a certification mark on building products and furnishings, the products’ packaging, or the products’ accompanying documentation
- Making sure their products come with long warranties
- Researching suppliers to find ones with social and environmental policies
- Making sure their products are sustainably sourced
- Buying products with minimal packaging
The Wallcoverings Association partnered with NSF in 2009 to create the NSF/ANSI 342 standard, which covers materials such as textiles, vinyl or alternative polymer (or vinyl- or alternative polymer-coated material), paper, and other natural fiber products.
The Wallcoverings Association also notes the importance of sustainability in protecting human health.
“We wanted to create a standard to allow ease for marketplace comparisons when looking for a product’s life cycle,” says Matthew Jones, Executive Director of the Wallcoverings Association. “Manufacturers who earn this certification have exemplary performance demonstrating sustainable practices that help support human health.”
In This Together
The Natural Stone Institute is another partner of NSF and sets the industry standards for the natural stone industry. The Institute recognizes the significance of product sustainability as well, focusing in particular on natural resources, such as stone.
“Using healthier materials with minimal amounts of processing will reduce the embodied carbon of building projects. Natural stone is a single-ingredient, all-natural material with zero VOCs,” says Sarah B Gregg, Marketing Manager at the Natural Stone Institute. “Since Mother Nature does most of the manufacturing, its embodied energy is inherently low. The Natural Stone Sustainability Standard, which was developed through our partnership with NSF, verifies that the natural stone being selected is produced in a responsible manner, ensuring the health of our workers and our planet.”
The ANSI/NSC 373 Sustainable Production of Natural Dimension Stone standard addresses issues including water, site management, land reclamation and adaptive reuse, all of which contribute to verifying a product’s sustainable practices.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (2019. September 9). Flame Retardants. Retrieved from: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/flame_retardants/index.cfm
Richardson, Robert B. (2018. August 1). Depleting Earth's resources. Retrieved from: https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2018/depleting-earths-resources
UN Environment Programme. (2019). We’re gobbling up the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. Retrieved from: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/were-gobbling-earths-resources-unsustainable-rate
United States Environmental Protection Agency. What are the trends in wastes and their effects on human health and the environment? Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/report-environment/wastes
World Health Organization. (2019. June 14). Drinking Water. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water