The Link between Health and Built Environments

Building Health

We’ve learned since grade school that outdoor air pollution has a significant impact on our health, but what about the hidden dangers of poor indoor air quality (IAQ)? While many of us know dust, smoke and pet dander found in homes can cause and trigger respiratory illnesses, it is easy for people to overlook the carcinogens that are lurking in building envelopes.

As prefabricated materials became more and more common during the construction boom in the 20th century, cheaper materials and faster options were popular. Unfortunately, many of these options also contained asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that was used in its raw form. For the better part of the 20th century, asbestos was included in items ranging from insulation, pipe fittings, drywall, popcorn ceilings, tiling and plaster to consumer products like crockpots, clothing and home decor. Asbestos use drastically declined after 1980, years after the mineral was recognized as a human carcinogen; however it is still legal and used to this day in the United States, mostly found in imported items.

Asbestos fibers are largely harmless if untouched and undisturbed; however, once the items are broken or damaged, the fibers are released into the air and dangerous to human health. Once inhaled, the fibers can over time lead to irritation and potentially cause tumors to form resulting in the development of an asbestos-related disease, the most serious of which is a rare cancer known as malignant mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the thin layer of cells lining the body’s internal organs, and there are three recognized types of mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease, accounting for roughly 70% of cases, and occurs in the lining of the lung. Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the lining of the abdominal cavity, and pericardial mesothelioma originates in the pericardium, which lines the heart. In most cases, mesothelioma symptoms will not appear in an individual exposed to asbestos until many years after the exposure has occurred, so in order for people to maintain optimum health, they should spend some time learning about where asbestos is hidden and what to do if the carcinogen poses a threat to their environment.

People all across the United States spend 90 percent of their time indoors, whether it be in office, residential or commercial spaces. IAQ is crucial for good health, so building awareness about the link between health and the built environment is vital to the wellbeing of all people. Asbestos becomes a hazard when it is airborne. Evaluating homes and items for asbestos helps avoid illness related to asbestos exposure. Hiring a licensed professional to properly test and abate any asbestos-containing materials is an important step, and following guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a good place to start. The EPA lists a few do’s and don’ts for homeowners that have discovered asbestos, but these tips also apply to those who own commercial spaces, facility managers and all else responsible for maintaining built environments.

The demand for environmental home assessments is growing. Southface has advocated the importance of healthy building for years and continues to position itself at the forefront of this movement by promoting sustainable homes, workplaces and communities through education, research, advocacy and technical assistance. Southface staff participated as subject matter experts to develop a micro-credential within the Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification system, the Healthy Home Evaluator (HHE). This designation recognizes the value of having existing home energy professionals assess both the energy efficiency aspects and environmental health and safety hazards in a home, preparing the certified HHE to provide a prioritized list of recommendations to address those hazards.

For more information about the HHE, please visit and head to for facts about mesothelioma and asbestos.

About the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance at is the web’s most trusted information resource for individuals who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and their families. Our mission, as a leading authority on this topic, is to continually provide relevant, timely and factual information about asbestos exposure and its causal links to mesothelioma cancer.

About Southface
Southface inspires market-based solutions at the nexus of the natural, social and built environments. Since 1978 Southface has served as the Southeast’s nonprofit leader in promoting sustainable homes, workplaces and communities through education, research, advocacy and technical assistance. Learn more at

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