Happy Halloween Panelman Readers! In the spirit of this spooky holiday, I thought I’d share a few scary ingredients in certain panels being used in home building these days. We’re talking stuff like arsenic and formaldehyde, truly frightening right? Who wants to be haunted by these chemicals in their own house? So whether you have chemical sensitivities or just want to ensure your home is free of the bad stuff, read on…if you dare.

What’s Green Isn’t Always Good
Everyone is so concerned about going green for the planet, they don’t always ensure that what’s good for the environment is also good for people. I try to work with companies who take BOTH into consideration, especially when it comes to home and office construction panels. After all, this is where people live and work everyday!

Think on the Fly!
Fly ash is the name of the substance that “flies” into the air as coal burns. It includes chemicals like silicon dioxide (including crystalline silica – I’ll get to that later). Fly ash may also contain arsenic, chrome 6, boron, bismuth, antimony…you get the picture. These are intense elements that you don’t want in your home. Prior to regulation, fly ash – and all these chemicals – literally flew up into the atmosphere. Then the U.S. required fly ash to be captured by machines that filter out the polluting particles. That left coal companies with tons of fly ash to either dispose of or recycle. Today, nearly half of the fly ash is recycled, which is good news for the planet…what about people?

In a recycled application, fly ash is often mixed into cement and asphalt, and used outdoors on roads and industrial structures – that’s just fine. However, it’s showing up in some cement board (like Portland cement) and being used in the home. All I’m saying is to think before you fly…Here’s a nice overview:

Heavy Metal Doesn’t Rock
The heavy metals that show up in fly ash really are hardcore, and have been linked to conditions like multiplesclorosis, birth defects, and cancer. Kidneys cannot process heavy metals so they build up in your system. Let’s go back to silicon dioxide. Now, amorphous silica is an irritant found in fiberglass, but it has not been shown to have long term side effects. On the other hand, crystalline silica – a main component of fly ash – is serious stuff and can lead to silicosis. In Australia and New Zealand, contractors are never allowed to cut cement board containing it, inside the home. So is this really a product you want in your walls, right next to you?

A Closer Look at Gypsum Board
Not to keep scaring you, but it’s also important to know about the risks with synthetic gypsum board, otherwise known as flue gas desulfurization (FGD) gypsum. Rough estimates suggest it’s showing up in a third of gypsum board out there today. It’s made from the sulfur dioxide left over after fire-powered coal plants “scrub” out the sulfur from the flue gases (but it’s not the same as fly ash). There are a few issues with FGD Gypsum. First, it’s not always pure sulfur dioxide…it depends on exactly what materials the coal plant is burning. For example, high mercury levels have been found in some boards because high mercury coal was being burned. Volatile sulfur compounds – which not only smell bad, but can be very dangerous – have also been shown to emit from some gypsum boards. Second, because gypsum is not naturally mold resistant, chemicals are often added into the board which can then off gas without proper ventilation. For further reading, click here http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm/2010/7/30/Synthetic-Gypsum/ and here http://greenspec.buildinggreen.com/blogs/gypsum-board-are-our-walls-leaching-toxins

Now…A Trip to Morgue
Keeping with our Halloween theme, let’s talk about another chemical that shows up in some panels. When you hear “formaldehyde,” you probably think creepy critters preserved in glasses in biology class or maybe, Six Feet Under. Well, it’s also present in some OSB, plywood, chip board, and other boards that involve sawdust glued together. Formaldehyde is a major irritant for those with chemical sensitivities and allergies. But it’s also been shown to lead to cancer with prolonged exposure. There is a ton of research out there, but why not start with the EPA? Here is a link: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formaldehyde.html. I also want to mention that formaldehyde is highly flammable and when it burns, it releases seriously toxic fumes…

Now, I didn’t cover the dangers lurking in some of the panels on the market today to scare you! I’ll be following up with a post in the next week about why magnesium oxide board may be a great option for those with chemical sensitivities – or those of us who just want to breathe easier in our homes and offices! In the meantime, I just advise you to do your research and know what you’re building with! Have a Happy Halloween!