The construction sector provides shelter, homes, places of business, and the opportunity to rebuild for a greener future. It’s been a core part of our ongoing development, progress, and modernization for centuries. However, despite the numerous benefits the construction industry offers, it is not without a negative impact on the environment.
In this article, we will examine some harmful materials and practices used in construction and their environmental impact.
Constructing our places to live and work is highly beneficial as it keeps us safe from natural elements; however, each new concrete slab poured, and design plan realized harms the environment. Materials used in the construction industry causing harm to the surrounding environment, used in both the past and present, include:
Lead is an inexpensive, durable, and versatile raw material used for construction projects. You will find lead-in cables, wiring casings, paints, surface coatings, and plumbing systems.
Leads use in construction is hazardous to human health2. It can cause gastrointestinal and cardiovascular defects, high blood pressure, kidney problems, anemia, embryotoxicity, neoplasia, bone marrow suppression, and seizures.
Volatile organic compounds are manufactured compounds that have chemicals with high vapor pressure and low water solubility. Today we can find VOCs in paints, varnishes, caulks, adhesives, carpets, vinyl flooring, and composite wood products. The compounds present in VOCs are:
Formaldehyde: It is a colorless, flammable compound with a pungent smell. You'll find formaldehyde in building materials like plywood, particle board, and other pressed-wood products. Inhaling formaldehyde is harmful to us- it causes cancers like leukemia.
Acetaldehyde: You will find this chemical in different building materials, lubricants, fire protection paints, and explosives. Acetaldehyde is also a chemical produced industrially, with a pungent smell. Manufacturers use it to create other chemical compounds and synthetic resins.
BTEX substances: BTEX is benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. They are chemical compounds that form naturally in crude oil and in areas where there are deposits of natural petroleum and gas. Human activities like operating vehicles and airplanes produce these substances by releasing emissions. Also, construction materials like adhesives, paints, and other rubber products create some BTEX substances.
Phenol: This is a compound produced from cumene through a four-stage Hock production process. Manufacturers use phenol to create phenolic resin by combining it with formaldehyde. In the construction industry, phenolic resins are for making furniture, foundry molds, adhesives, insulation materials, plywood, and oriented boards. Furthermore, manufacturers use it to create thermoplastics and synthetic fibers for carpeting.
Related: Read our deeper dive exploring: is particle board toxic?
Glycol ethers: Glycol ethers are solvents based on alkyl ethers of ethylene or propylene glycol. They are water-soluble and biodegradable compounds usually found in paints and cleaners. There are two groups of glycerol ethers: e-series and p-series. You will find e-series glycerol ethers in water-based paints and p-series in degreasers, cleaners, aerosol paints, and adhesives.
Chromated copper arsenate contains chromium, copper, and arsenic compounds. It is a wood preservative construction workers use to protect the wood from insects and microbes.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the harmful effects of CCA on human health8, but they still permit usage. It enters the bloodstream when you breathe in the emissions from burning wood. However, efforts to prevent construction companies from using it have proven only partially effective because a number of construction projects still use it.
Asbestos is a biological process that forms fiber-like silicate materials. There are six divisions of asbestos, placed in two primary categories. They are:
The use of asbestos was widespread because of its high resistance to heat, corrosion, and electricity. In the construction sector, it served as an effective insulator. Manufacturers also added it to other materials to make them stronger and more durable.
Over the years, we discovered that asbestos exposure is highly dangerous. It can cause scarring, inflammation, cancer, and other problems. Science found that asbestos is the cause of mesothelioma cancer and a lung disease known as asbestosis.
Silica, an oxide of silicon, is a natural resource in rocks, sand, and clay. There's an abundance of silica in the environment. It makes it one of the primary materials used in construction, especially road construction.
Silica puts us at risk of developing a lung disease called silicosis9. Silicosis is an incurable lung disease that develops after constant inhalation of silica for up to 10 years. Inhaling silica can also cause lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and other airway diseases.
Polyvinyl chloride is a synthetic polymer of plastic. It is a common component in the manufacturing of pipes for construction. Construction companies also use it for flooring, cables, and roofing. It is the top-used plastic material in construction projects because it is versatile and affordable.
There are various forms of polyvinyl chloride, including flexible PVC, rigid PVC, Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride, Molecular Oriented PVC, and Modified PVC.
Although it is a versatile material, it is toxic to our surrounding environment. It is one of the leading plastic wastes globally. The production and usage of PVC release harmful chemicals that contaminate the water and food we ingest, contributing to environmental harm.
PVC is a chlorine-based plastic, and its manufacture can result in high quantities of chlorine entering the environment4. Also, the production of PVC creates other toxic chemical elements like dioxin and dioxin-like compounds.
Looking at the list of construction materials above, we can already tell that construction materials have an environmental impact on our surroundings. Also, construction activities on-site and off-site effects the environment. Here are some of the environmental impacts of the construction industry:
The construction sector contributes to air pollution, which in turn degrades the ozone layer, causing rapid global warming. According to statistics provided by the Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction in 20195, the United States produces up to 40% of carbon dioxide emissions.
All stages of the construction process produce a high amount of carbon emissions. The construction process ranges from manufacturing building materials to transportation and on-site building, machinery, and so on. Many of these processes have high energy needs; for example, think of all the machinery powered by fossil fuels required to source timber and metal for many construction projects, all contributing to air pollution and greenhouse gases.
Besides releasing carbon dioxide, construction projects also release a bunch of other pollutants into the atmosphere. These pollutants mainly contain cement, wood, and stone debris. Construction and demolition debris enter the air at construction sites and reduce air quality. Over time people inhale these toxic elements into their bloodstreams, causing health problems.
Another environmental impact of construction is water pollution. Demolition debris from construction impacts water in the local environment. Toxic chemicals, cement, adhesives, paint, sand debris, and oil wash into local water sources like lakes, rivers, dams, and reservoirs. Plants, animals, and humans interact and ingest these contaminated water bodies, leading to health problems like cancer.
Furthermore, construction firms conducting mining projects to extract raw materials cause water pollution. Soil exposed to water pollution poses a threat to the plant and animal ecosystem because of the soil. Water pollution also impacts construction projects because they require tons of clean water. Construction firms must devise measures to reduce water pollution in the environment.
Construction sites produce a lot of noise during their activities because construction workers use heavy machines and equipment. In the official categorization of noise pollution, construction sites are in the neighborhood noise category7. If the construction site is in a populated area, it causes sleep deprivation for the residents. It can also lead to high-stress levels.
However, the noise affects construction workers more because they are around the noise for long hours. It can lead to a total or partial loss of hearing. It can also lead to startling reactions, high anxiety levels, and cardiovascular issues. Noise from a construction site also affects animals by disrupting their sleep cycles.
Construction waste is any form of debris from building, renovation, or demolition done on construction sites. Construction waste products range from large sizes to minuscule volumes.
In 2018, the United States recorded 600 million tons of construction and demolition waste6. These statistics show that construction companies are responsible for the majority of the waste in our environment today. Some examples of construction waste are concrete, bricks, ferrous metal and non-ferrous metal, plastic, and other waste products.
Some construction firms do not dispose of waste properly, thereby increasing environmental pollution. Construction industries should strive to reduce waste from their projects and dispose of them properly. They should focus on recycling some valuable materials instead of turning them into landfill waste.
Construction projects require large quantities of raw materials to complete building structures. These raw materials are sand, gravel, clay, calcium carbonate, water, aggregate, wood, iron, bitumen, aluminum, and fuel for vehicles. Worldwatch institute records show that construction companies consume 40% of the world's natural stones, sand, and gravel. It also uses up to 25% of virgin wood yearly3.
However, these natural resources are at risk of depletion because of the high rate at which construction companies build infrastructures. The construction sector is one of the world's highest consumers of raw materials. And if construction volumes continue to draw on non-renewable resources, depletion becomes inevitable.
Related: Environmental impact of mining
Construction sites require a ton of energy because they perform lots of activities. Some of these activities include:
The construction industry contributes 36% of global energy usage1. Without more measures to reduce the amount of energy construction projects consume will lead to an unbearable amount of greenhouse gas production.
Further, the resulting residential and commercial buildings consume more energy because of the increase in floor area, space heating, lighting, and appliances. The energy levels for lighting and appliances are close to 18EJ. Also, energy rates for space are the highest at 42EJ. This fact remains despite efforts to promote and mandate energy-efficient buildings.
Sustainable construction is the act of conducting a construction project with materials and processes that are harmless to the environment. Sustainable construction aims to reduce the negative impacts of construction on our health and environment so the industry can adhere to emission reduction targets and reduce fuel consumption.
Many people have never thought about the environmental impact of construction on our local environment. The environmental impact of construction doesn't only affect the plant and soil ecosystem, and it also affects humans. Our health is at risk if construction companies do not practice sustainable construction projects.
M. Santamouris, K. Vasilakopoulou, Present and future energy consumption of buildings: Challenges and opportunities towards decarbonisation, e-Prime - Advances in Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Energy, Volume 1, 2021, 100002, ISSN 2772-6711, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.prime.2021.100002
Shakhawat Chowdhury, 11 - Lead-based construction and building materials: human exposure, risk, and risk control, In Woodhead Publishing Series in Civil and Structural Engineering, Advances in the Toxicity of Construction and Building Materials, Woodhead Publishing, 2022, Pages 243-259, ISBN 9780128245330, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-824533-0.00007-4
Ametepey, S.O., & Ansah, S.K. (2014). Impacts of construction activities on the environment : the case of Ghana.
Thornton, J. (2002). Environmental impacts of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) building materials (pdf). Washington, DC: Healthy Building Network.
Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. 2019. 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2018). Advancing Sustainable Materials Management
Noise Policy Statement for England (NPSE) (pdf), DEFRA, March 2010 (UK Government)
The United States Environmental Protection Agency, (February 4, 2022). Chromated Arsenicals (CCA).
Chi Chiu Leung, Ignatius Tak Sun Yu, Weihong Chen, Silicosis, The Lancet, Volume 379, Issue 9830, 2012, Pages 2008-2018, ISSN 0140-6736, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60235-9
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.