Toxicology of Buildings

Housing and Health – a barometer of health and behaviour ?

The ISSE has always promoted the principles of holistic property inspections.

Toxic and allergenic particles are found in all buildings but three separate issues reflect their risk and potential hazard to occupants. The first is level or dose of contaminate the second is duration of exposure and thirdly the victims sensitivity.

Toxic or allergenic substances can be in the form of gas recognised as volatile organic compounds or VOCs, particulates or dust, typically dust mite faeces, mould spores or fragments of dead mould, microbial VOCS produced by bacteria and of course chemical products contained in building or furnishing products including cleaning chemicals.


There are tens of thousands of chemicals but only a very small percentage have been tested for hazard or risk and these have never been assessed in combination or synergistic effects of compounds or mixing with other toxins.

Typically beach can be used safely on its own but when mixed with lime scale remover in a toilet bowl the result is life threatening mustard gas.

Many individual chemicals such as formaldehyde are known to be carcinogenic and their use in construction materials is being reduced and typically ammoniated cleaners, once seen as miracle (smell the ammonia) cleaners they are now banned or restricted.

With so many potential chemicals, VOCs and particulates in the air dilution may be seen as a major requirement and this can be achieved by active ventilation which unfortunately today is being severely restricted due to heating cost and carbon emission issues.

With many commercial buildings using less than 5% fresh air in their supply systems the potential for dilution is severely reduced. Domestic homes are similarly challenged as fresh air is seen by many as a costly loss of energy and building regulations appeared to actively discourage fresh air.

Sick or tight building syndrome has become a major issue and building occupant health can be challenged by the complex issues of indoor air quality.

Traditionally surveyors have monitored simple parameters mainly due to the shortfalls of economic monitoring equipment. The usual monitoring was for carbon dioxide, monoxide, formaldehyde and perhaps bacteria or mould on culture plates.

Results were often less than useful and rarely identified major issues. Sick buildings result in low worker productivity, especially towards the end of the day and higher levels of absenteeism towards the end of a week. Respiratory problems blurred vision and skin or eye irritation are typical symptoms.

Today new technology opens the door for detailed investigation of IAQ and the ISSE is at the forefront of this technology and its members can provide detailed investigations covering all aspects of investigation.


Training is available to members of the ISSE

Considering the percentage of time the average office or factory worker spends at home and then in the office or factory the exposure to possibly quite small amounts of materials, which in isolation and in small quantities probably would be quite harmless, has to be considered in combination and chronic exposure to these as a major influence in health.

To make matter much worse cleaning materials are now almost entirely none artificial and the use of at times highly concentrated multi chemical compounds used regularly and in combination in the home and office should be evaluated. The rule in Donoghue and Stephenson regarding duty of care underlies these issues when manufacturers, housing owners and managers, architects, building surveyors and public health departments fail to act in an area of such importance is largely due to ‘creep’ about to lead to an explosion as is the case in so many of these matters – when asbestos for example is taken into account.

The ISSE has developed and prepared a ISSE Property Condition Audit which is a complete property condition report – internal and external. It is also an environmental condition report – ‘snapshot in time’ toxin catalogue and ventilation audit. Refinements of the ISSE Property Condition Audit can extend to thermal imaging and air quality testing and monitoring laboratory analysis of swabs, and specialist blood testing of occupiers. Powerful tools in conducting an audit over a period of time rather than the minimal snapshot in time data collection of the log.


The Log is a useful starting point for more detailed and conclusive study of environmental auditing.

While the ISSE surveyor is not a medical specialist the ISSE seek to work with such specialists in drawing together the holistic approach required.

The use of the Log indentifies toxins present or the likelihood of certain toxins assesses ventilation thus it can act as duty of care discharge documentation in property management.

The Log contains a training template for property manager, owner and occupier alike. This allows the environmental condition to be evaluated and recorded thus facilitating a remedial approach involving advice, curative recommendations and training in occupation to raise awareness on the part of owner manager and occupier and to agree a course of action to successfully remedy any adverse conditions identified.

Thus the potential savings in legal expenses in negligence claims, health impairment, improved working conditions and minimal absenteeism, decrease strain on the NHS can be immense. Behavioural problems attributed to chronic exposure of poor environmental condition could be reduced in line with the Home Log service

The ISSE can draw together via its national membership and its membership of the Construction Industry Council and work with specialist groups can bring about potentially immense improvements in public health.

Recently the ISSE has developed links with and a pilot housing partnership scheme between the City of Sheffield and the NHS.

The ISSE are to assist in evaluating property and environmental condition monitoring within an area or mixed housing in the City of Sheffield between October 2011 and March 2012. The results of which can form a springboard for UK wide partnership rollout.

An example recently arose when the ISSE approached the manufacturers of Kingspan rigid foamed insulation boards to confirm the chemical constituents in their materials. The manufacturers refused to reveal the chemical make up of this product. Should such cavalier attitude be allowed when the past use of asbestos for example and the escape of chlorine from UPVC windows especially during combustion are known issues. If the identity of chemicals is not revealed how can the end users endorse such materials and how is the seeming lack of regulation in this allowed ? These issues are caught up in Duty of Care but why should common law have to invoked as opposed to responsible and enlightened regulatory control when health is at risk ?

The ISSE have found that there are many pockets of expertise and awareness of all of the above issues but that the communications or awareness which could lead to the exchange and dissemination of information is absent.