In Healthcare Design’s December issue, I wrote an update on building materials and the desire for more transparency as the industry moves beyond a single attribute and looks for a broader understanding of what materials are made of.

“There are so many issues when it comes to the content,” Jean Hansen, sustainable interiors manager, senior professional associate, HDR Architecture (San Francisco), said. “We’ll keep pushing it forward.”

Adding some muscle to that push is a recent report from the Health Building Network on a study linking building materials and asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of people diagnosed with asthma grew by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009. Of the nearly 26 million people in the U.S. affected by chronic asthma, more than 8 million are children.

The 53-page report, “Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection,” by Sarah Lott and Jim Vallette, was released in December 2013. Of the key findings, HBN says it identified 20 top-priority asthmagens (chemicals known to cause the onset of asthma) in nine chemical groups that are used in building materials and have a high likelihood of occupant exposure, including acid anhydrides, styrene, formaldehyde, and ethanolamines.

The report also discusses the prevalence of these chemicals in the built environment, how they can impact children, and how common emissions-based building product certification protocols may miss detection.

“As asthma affects more people, it becomes increasingly clear that new strategies need to be considered, focusing on the prevention of asthma onset,” the authors write.

Among those approaches, the authors propose:

• Increased efforts by building owners, architects, and designers to screen building product contents for asthmagens

•Devoting more research to fully understand asthma onset mechanisms and potential contributions of asthmagens in building materials to the increasing rates of asthma

•Developing new protocols to testing protocols and rating systems, including IAG and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system, that take asthma onset into account

As awareness about the health impacts of the built environment continues to grow, designers, architects, owners, and the healthcare industry at large have the opportunity to ask more questions and demand more information from manufacturers and suppliers about the makeup of their products.

No one expects it to be an easy conversation–but evidence shows it’s one worth having.