Air Quality and Quality of Life: Masonry Promotes Health

April 21, 2016

Indoor air quality affects our health and motivation to live, work and play.  According to Health Canada, we spend 90% of our time indoors, and that makes the buildings we breathe in crucial to our overall health.

“Many homeowners don’t fully realize the potential for some building materials to adversely affect their family’s health.”  Envirohomes, Healthy Homes  Initiative

In a recent study conducted by Pollaris, 61% of homebuyers said they considered masonry the safest building material to prevent off-gassing, while 71% worry about the possibility of mould in their home.  Clearly air quality is a concern for many Ontarians.

Health Canada warns that “exposure to indoor mould is associated with an increased prevalence of asthma-related symptoms such as chronic wheezing, irritation symptoms, and non-specific symptoms.”

U.S. Green Building reports, “Indoor air quality can be 10 times worse than outdoor air on smoggy days in big cities.  Of all the chemicals that EPA regulates, only two are more prevalent outdoors than inside our homes and schools.  This is a quiet epidemic brewing right under our noses.  As the complexity of houses, especially with the dawn of synthetic products, increase, so do the risks to human health.”

Courtesy: Arriscraft

This has led to rising concerns about the air quality of our buildings and the health of those who live and work in them.  Sick Building Syndrome, or SBS, is a condition that has resulted in labour disputes, healthcare concerns and new building construction standards that require air quality control methods and environmental building materials.

A World Health Organization report into the syndrome of Sick Buildings (SBS) suggested that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be linked to symptoms of SBS.  Most of the sick building syndrome is related to poor indoor air quality.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reports that Indoor Air Quality problems may arise from Indoor air contaminants – chemicals, dusts, moulds or fungi, bacteria, gases, vapours, odours.   “Many office workers will spend their entire working day inside buildings. People working indoors often experience symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, coughing or nausea just to mention a few.”

While masonry construction for a building can improve air quality with increased energy efficiency and temperature and humidity control, a strong contribution to the health of our buildings and their occupants is low out-gassing and mould resistance.


Masonry Produces Low Out-gassing Emissions

Masonry emits much smaller amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than many other building materials, thus contributing to indoor air quality and personal comfort and health.

Guide to Sustainable Design with Concrete, v 2.0

Guide to Sustainable Design with Concrete, v 2.0

Masonry products are superior to many commonly used construction materials, with respect to off-gassing.  In contrast to vinyl and other plastics and petro-chemical based building materials and furnishings, masonry products emit very low levels of volatile organic compounds.  In the Guide to Sustainable Design With Concrete, version 2.0, published by the Cement Association of Canada reported that masonry emits 766 times less VOCs that sheet vinyl flooring.

The Clay Brick Association of Canada reports:  “Clay occurs naturally, is virtually inert and remains so when formed into bricks. Consequently, clay brick is the only cladding material which emits no gases, needs no maintenance, and is impervious to chemical leaching.  Moreover, brick is naturally fireproof and requires no coatings or cleaning products which could potentially produce environmentally harmful off-gassing or toxic fumes when burning.”

Bruce Small, a consultant who has worked with hundreds of building owners and architects in creating healthy buildings, welcomes what he sees as a new awareness on the part of hospitals for building design and material selection, especially in respect to air quality.  “Masonry’s great advantage is its capacity to buffer moisture and retain heat, while being odour-free,” he says.  ”Its ingredients being benign and non-toxic, it provides a good, clean base for good air quality.  And masonry often needs no interior finishing or coating, adding to its chemical free, environmental properties.”


Mould Resistance

Masonry construction provides an exterior wall that keeps a building drier and resistant to mould.  In typical use, masonry construction prevents growth of toxic mould because masonry materials do not provide a source of food for the fungi spores that cause mould; and masonry wall systems offer defined water management strategies that effectively resist the penetration of moisture, both from the interior and exterior, and minimize accumulation and duration of exposure of material to moisture and facilitate drying.

The Canafungal-mould resistanceda Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports:

“Mold requires the following conditions to grow:

  • Mold spores (which are always present indoors and outdoors)
  • The right temperature range, from 2°C to 40°C
  • A food supply, which means anything organic such as books, carpets, clothing, wood, drywall, etc.
  • A source of moisture.”

Since masonry contributes to temperature control and regulating moisture in buildings, and does not provide a food source for mould, it performs well in mould resistance tests.  A Canada Masonry study on Fungal Mould Resistance (FMRT) of Common Building Materials According to MIL-STD 810E in 2002 showed that concrete, concrete block and clay brick do not support fungal mould growth, while all samples of wood, gypsum and moisture-resistant drywall showed fungal infection.

“Virtually all forms of masonry have earned high rankings among non-toxic building products,” says Judy Pryma, Vice President, Sales and Marketing, for Brampton Brick.  “For example, masonry veneer and cavity walls work as rainscreens by resisting moisture penetration.  Such walls provide a continuous air space or drainage cavity of 25 mm to 50 mm (1 to 2 in.) in width between the back side of the masonry veneer and the face of the structural backing.  Brick, block, or stone may be used as the outermost element.”

Masonry is an air quality contributor, both in reducing off-gassing and in mould resistance.  In addition, its thermal mass increases energy efficiency by up to 13%, according to the Guide to Sustainable Design of Concrete, published by the Cement Association.  Masonry helps regulate temperatures in buildings, further contributing to occupant health and comfort.

David Stubbs of the Canada Masonry Design Centre says “masonry products are toxin-free, durable, and contribute to long-term sustainability.  Whether used as an exterior veneer or in interior walls, masonry is a very strong product that has a balance of sound resistance, mould resistance, good insulation capacity, and fire safety.”

As air quality becomes an increasing health concern, building with masonry products makes more sense than ever.  Our buildings need to be constructed of materials that contribute to human health and safety, and thereby contribute to the quality of life in our communities.