Green advocates are encouraging consumers to buy low and no VOC paints, which are healthier for people and widely available. (Andrea Bruce Woodall/THE WASHINGTON POST)

GreenBuild is the United States Green Building Council’s annual exposition to showcase the latest and greatest in green building. The spotlight at this year’s conference held recently in Philadelphia was on health, a cornerstone of the original green building mandate but one that so far has received relatively little attention.

Discussion on the broader level centered on creating built environments that encourage residents to incorporate exercise into their daily routine because the distances to shopping, local schools, public transportation and even one’s workplace are walkable or bikeable.

On a narrower scale, discussion focused on indoor air quality and healthy building materials.

As buildings become tighter to save energy, mechanized ventilation is needed to bring in fresh air; for houses, a continuously operating bathroom fan will often suffice. Specifying healthy building materials turns out to be much more complicated because most manufacturers do not disclose what is used to make their products.

But this is about to get much easier.

A big push within the green building community has led to the creation of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative, an organization that is developing standard disclosure forms so that consumers can easily make comparisons as they select building products. The list of large, mainstream building material manufacturers working with the HPD Collaborative is a good indication that the idea of disclosure has legs.

In the meantime, what can homeowners do?

Bill Walsh, of the Healthy Building Network, who has worked on health-related aspects of building for the last 13 years, and his colleague Jim Vallette offered the following suggestions:

• Use plumbing pipes made of polypropylene or PP. This type of plastic piping has been used for plumbing in Europe for more than 30 years. It does not leach into the water, has a long life and it can be recycled to make new pipe so it won’t end up in a landfill.

It is often used in combination with acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS, another type of plastic piping. Neither of these types of plumbing pipes creates the environmental problems associated with piping made of polyvinyl chloride or PVC, the type most commonly used in residential construction in the U.S.

Among other issues, a byproduct of PVC manufacture is dioxin, a carcinogen for which no exposure level is safe. Through wind and water, dioxin from PVC manufacture has been dispersed across the globe; it has been found in the tissues of every mammal on the planet, including humans.

Use low VOC or no VOC paints. Almost all paint manufacturers now make products which release very small amounts of volatile organic compounds or no volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, into the air after they have dried.

Of the many VOCs that can be released, the one of largest concern has been formaldehyde, which has been declared a known carcinogen by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Avoid building products with asthma-causing chemicals. Chemicals that can cause asthma to develop are often referred to as asthmagens, and these are found in many building products, including flooring. With carpeting, asthmagens are used in the backing and installation glues.

Homeowners can avoid the glue exposure by specifying “dry tack” installation (typically done for residential work, but not always). As yet there is no asthmagen-free backing for residential carpeting, but some carpet manufacturers use it in their commercial lines.

Linoleum and vinyl have asthmagens in their top coating (commonly known as the wear surface), but the amount in linoleum is miniscule (.03 percent); by comparison, vinyl has about 50 times as much (15 percent). Wood flooring is commonly finished with polyurethane; the asthmagen-free alternative is a traditional oil wood finish.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at or