5 Most Toxic and Hazardous Construction Chemicals

Published February 8, 2017 by Whirlwind Team

hazardous construction chemicals

In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was signed into law, ostensibly giving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the ability to regulate chemical use in the United States, up to and including banning substances that were deemed to be of unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.

Since then the EPA has banned only five substances out of over 80,000 in use today in the U.S. One substance, it attempted to ban is still found in numerous construction materials. Other chemicals that may undergo more scrutiny soon are also used in construction.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was recently signed by President Barack Obama giving more strength to the TSCA. Potentially, more substances will come under scrutiny than before, and the EPA will be more successful at regulating or outright banning certain chemicals.

However, considering the extreme backlog of substances the EPA has yet to assess, it may be some time before you see any changes in the materials you use in your projects or any information regarding those you have used in the past. Be aware that regulations are being tightened and could impact your supply line and your ability to source affordable materials.

The big 5 construction chemicals

There are five chemicals the EPA will likely assess first, all of which play a significant role in the construction industry:

  1. Asbestos
  2. Formaldehyde
  3. Di-isocyanates
  4. Flame retardants
  5. Silica

The EPA attempted to ban asbestos in 1989, but the ban was overturned in 1991 in appeals court, which ruled that the EPA had not met the burden of scientific proof required by TSCA that the substance posed an unreasonable risk to health or the environment.

Around 15,000 people in the U.S. die each year from asbestos-related illness. Once that ban was overturned the EPA never again attempted to ban another hazardous substance.

These days, asbestos fibers are found in these common building products:

  • Joint compound
  • Floor tile
  • Cement board
  • Pipes
  • Shingles

Exposure to asbestos can lead to pulmonary diseases (diseases of the lungs) including something you may hear on a commercial: mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer that is usually fatal.


Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It was grandfathered in under the original 1976 version of the TSCA and, therefore, has never been fully assessed by the EPA.

It is an irritant to the mucous membranes, the thin tissue inside your nose and other respiratory passages and inside your gut. Long term exposure can cause asthma-like respiratory problems and skin irritation such as dermatitis and itching.

Formaldehyde is commonly found in polymers used in plywood and carpet manufacture as well as resins important to the manufacture of paper products and polyurethane foam insulation manufacturing.


Di-isocyanates (die-i-so-sie-uh-nates) have been in use since the 1940s, mainly in polyurethane products:

  • Rigid and flexible foams
  • Coatings
  • Adhesives
  • Sealants
  • Elastomers

The occupational risk and hazard of these chemicals is limited to people who come into contact with it in its vapor or liquid form that occurs as a byproduct of manufacture. The actual chemical does not pose a direct risk to construction workers, but you may be impacted because polyurethane foam building insulation, paints and coatings, and other products will probably become heavily regulated or eliminated after the EPA review.

Flame retardants

Flame retardant is a term used for a group of chemicals that are used to inhibit the ignition or spread of fire. Halogenated flame retardants are related to PCBs, another potentially harmful substance, and have been linked to:

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Developmental problems in children

It can be found in thermal insulation boards and many textiles.


You probably heard of the problems with silica dust through the regulations released from OSHA about the risk of inhaling the dust. When silica dust is inhaled, it can travel deep into the lungs and cause disabling or fatal lung problems including silicosis and lung cancer. It can also cause kidney cancer.,

Silica is a component of bricks, glass, and concrete, and OSHA regulates the dust with Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs). With the new law, the EPA may place even more stringent restrictions on silica.

Other chemicals that have not yet been assessed include C8, also known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), Styrene, and Bisphenol A.

C8 was an integral part of DuPont’s Teflon non-stick coating. DuPont and seven other chemical manufacturers came to an agreement with the EPA to voluntarily stop using it for that type of coating. However, it is used in other products that are marketed to shed water or keep food from sticking. It may be a component of building material.

How the Lautenberg Act will roll out

Initially, the chemical companies will pay $25 million in annual fees to cover the cost of EPA reviews of chemicals in its backlog. The EPA may still have difficulties in performing these reviews due to lack of funding and staffing.

Many organizations approve of the new law but feel it failed to fund the initiative adequately. The new law also blocks some state efforts to impose restrictions on harmful substances because the power to do so has been placed more in the EPA, which, again, is understaffed and underfunded.

The impact of the Lautenberg Act on the construction industry will be felt in two ways.

  • First, as chemicals are assessed and restricted, it could make it difficult to source materials, especially those with no replacement in the development pipeline. Newly developed materials will probably be more expensive than what they replace.
  • Secondly, performing renovations and demolition could become more difficult depending on the restrictions and recommendations on clean-up and disposal.

You may not see any fast changes, but you should keep up with the progress of the EPA and make plans now for replacing any materials that could be eliminated and for developing safety processes for handling old material as you find your company dealing with newly restricted or regulated materials.

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