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Environmental Pollution
Environmental Pollution

Construction Contaminants and Environmental Pollution

The main pollution from construction contaminants that spread around by air and/or water runoff are:

  • Polluted particulate matter and dust (PM10) including particulate matter of small size (PM10 = less than 10 microns in diameter) which poses increased health risk because it enters the human body easily. The PM10 has a variety of sources including the diesel engine’s exhaust (Diesel particulate matter – DMP) and construction materials (e.g., concrete, cement, silica). The inhalation of PM10 may adversely impact human health triggering health issues such as: asthma, bronchitis and sometimes even cancer (e.g., lung cancer). PM10 is spread around by air and can be easily inhaled and damage human health. When in contact with water polluted (e.g., from precipitation or spraying) PM10 will settle and may accumulate in top soil. From there it can be redistributed by wind and re-mobilized as suspended air particles.
  • Volatile organic compounds such as a series of petroleum hydrocarbons, ketones and other organic compounds – from some of the used materials such as paints, oils, glues, cleaners, operation of diesel engines, etc. Examples of VOCs that may raise health concern (if inhaled or in contact with human body in amounts high enpugh) are: toluene, xylene, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), 1,1,1-TCA (especially at demolished site as this chemical is currently banned) etc. VOCs may spread around by air, as well as dissolved in runoff water possibly affecting soil, groundwater, and indoor air quality, too.
  • PAHs – Polyaromatic hydrocarbons are organic compounds composed of carbon and hydrogen aromatic rings that are commonly formed through burning activities, including operation of diesel engines. PAHs are in general resistant to degradation and may accumulate in soil and sediments.
  • Carbon monoxide – from burning activities and operation of diesel engines is a toxic gas. It binds to hemoglobin irreversibly impeding the transport of oxygen in blood. Thus, if many hemoglobin cells are bound to carbon monoxide death occurs. It is an incomplete combustion product that can be highly toxic if it accumulates in enclosed spaces.
  • Carbon dioxide – is a greenhouse gas generated though burning activities such as operation of diesel engines from construction equipment. Carbon dioxide contributes at smog formation and lowering the overall air quality. It may pose a health concern if it accumulates in high amounts in the air on enclosed spaces, and thus displacing oxygen.
  • Nitrogen oxides – are some of the main air pollutant gases comprising a series of oxides of nitrogen (such as oxides, dioxides, tri-, tetro- and pento- oxides of nitrogen). It is produced through combustion by the reaction of oxygen and nitrogen from air (that otherwise will not react with each other). Nitrogen oxides contribute to smog formation and lowering of the overall air quality. This may adversely influence the lung functioning especially in sensitive people (e.g., with asthma). Also, the nitrogen oxides contribute to acid rain by forming nitric acid when in contact with precipitation water. Furthermore, small particles containing nitric acid can penetrate the lungs causing serious health problems. Nitrogen oxides can also react with VOCs, heat, and sunlight forming ozone that may negatively impact the lungs. Other nitro- toxic products may form causing mutations.
  • Asbestos – is a natural mineral used heavily in construction because of its great insulating and fire-resistance properties. However, due to its extreme toxicity and proven ability to cause cancer in humans (e.g., mesotelioma which is cancer of the lining of the lungs specifically associated with asbestos exposure), asbestos was banned and usually it is not used in the constructions after 2000 (at least in the U.S.). However older buildings may have substantial amount of asbestos and demolition of such buildings can cause the spreading around (by air) of asbestos fibers that cannot be seen of felt by our senses. If not disturb asbestos does not pose a health threat. However demolition and construction activities may pose serious risks to workers and people in the surrounding communities. 
  • Mercury – mercury may be associated with demolition sites since it can be found in switches and thermostats, electronic equipment and/or batteries.
  • Pb – lead may be found in paints and other materials. Although Pb paints are not used anymore, demolition sites may release Pb from older paints (usually before 1978).
  • Other construction toxic materials – a series of toxic materials, apart from the main ones listed above, may also be used in some construction activities and/or form as byproducts or demolition. For example treated wood can release chemicals including Cr, As, Cu, and some organic compounds The main preventive measure involve the increase demand to use “green building materials”. Reducing the energy consumption also contributes to overall greening of construction activities.