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Article related to: People and perspectives
As safe as Swedish houses?
A lot of the material used in buildings contains substances that may be harmful for human health or the environment. The construction sector has a great responsibility in making sure that these substances are phased out. We spoke with Ms Marianne Hedberg from the Swedish Construction Federation to learn about what Sweden is doing to make buildings safer.
“The things we build today will still be there in 30, 50, maybe 100 year’s time. It is not enough to think about and focus on substances that we know are harmful today. In 50 years, we will know much more about all the substances used and we therefore need to have complete information now on what materials are being used in our buildings,” Ms Marianne Hedberg, Expert in environmental issues at the Swedish Construction Federation emphasises.
Making our homes safer
It is mainly the people who use buildings who are affected by harmful substances contained in building material, not the people who build them. “Phthalates have been used for many years as softeners in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in flooring, for example. Today, we know that some of them have endocrine disrupting effects which are particularly of concern for children who crawl on the floor and breathe in dust that contains the substances,” Ms Hedberg explains.
|Marianne Hedberg. |
Image: Rosie Alm.
In addition to phthalates, she mentions asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as some of the lessons that the construction industry has learnt. Today, we know that asbestos used in insulation can be a cause of lung cancer and PCB used as a sealant in the 60s and 70s has probably affected the learning ability of children who have lived in areas where it has leaked into the environment.
It requires a lot of knowledge and research to know whether a material is safe to use. According to Ms Hedberg, it is unreasonable to expect that level of knowledge from an average citizen. “We decided that the sector cannot wait for the public to demand safer materials and buildings. We need to make sure ourselves that anything we build is safe,” she says and continues, “not many people buying new houses ask questions related to construction materials. If people knew about some of the substances that can legally be used around the world to build their homes, they would definitely ask for some of them to be removed.”
Find safe products in the Basta database
The biggest construction companies, material producers, property owners and property developers in Sweden started to work together in early 2000 and established criteria to evaluate the inherent properties of building products.
The aim is to help everyone in the construction sector make conscious decisions when planning building products and to ultimately phase out the most hazardous substances from construction material.
The system that was developed is called Basta. It is a non-profit initiative owned jointly by the Swedish Environmental Research Institute and the Swedish Construction Federation. Basta is a database where material producers can register their products that meet the Basta criteria. Builders and property owners can in turn search to make sure that the materials they are considering to use are safe. The material evaluation is hazard based, which means that users need to evaluate the possible risks themselves based on their use.
The Basta criteria comply with the REACH and CLP regulations. “The only difference is for endocrine disruptors. We use the EU common EDC database for our documentation, even though it was last updated quite some time ago. We are waiting for the new official criteria and we are in a hurry to get them,” Ms Hedberg explains.
Use of the database is free of charge, but you may need to pay a fee to register your products in the database and to attend trainings and seminars linked to the system.
Spreading the knowledge
In addition to the Basta system, there are also two other initiatives – Building products assessment (Byggvarubedömningen) and Healthy house (Sunda hus) – which share the same aim of phasing out the most hazardous materials. They can be used in parallel with Basta, depending on the level of help you need and your willingness to pay for the services.
All three evaluation systems are voluntary initiatives. “These systems offer education and information on a very broad basis. They help spread knowledge among material producers and property developers and owners. The media have also started to tell people what they should be aware of and what they should ask when they, for example, consider buying a new home,” Ms Hedberg says.
Property owners need to demand safe products
According to Ms Hedberg, the evaluation criteria and the available databases are well established in Sweden. “When a property owner orders a new house, it is very rare nowadays that they would not include any environmental demands or written criteria on how to select products.”
Although material producers are making great progress in developing safer products, it takes time. There are often good reasons for that. Since buildings are in use for a very long time, it is particularly important to make sure that new products being developed are truly safer. At the same time, they still have to have a strong technical performance.
“If we replace a hazardous material with something that is of poorer technical quality, the stability of the construction may be worse, or the lifetime of the product shorter. This can lead to a situation where you have to replace it repeatedly. This is not what we want – it is bad in terms of the life-cycle of products and is also bad for the environment,” Ms Hedberg points out.
”Our criteria are free to use”
Although acknowledging that the Swedish system can be further improved, Ms Hedberg is positive about the developments made to ensure the safety of construction materials. “The success factor for us has been the cooperation within the sector. We got together to figure out what could be achieved, how we could set up science-based criteria and how we could make sure that we worked in a transparent way,” she explains. In addition to the sector cooperation, the national objective of 'a non-toxic environment' helps keep the topic on the public agenda.
Cooperate and get started now are the two main messages she wishes to send to her colleagues all around Europe. “Our criteria are free to use and our databases contain over 100 000 products that have already been evaluated. We are keen to share our knowledge and the information we have collected,” she concludes.
The Swedish Construction Federation
Source: The Swedish Construction Federation
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
Top image: Björn Wellhagen
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