Chinese cities are growing fast which often results in a sacrifice in the quality of building materials used. This can lead to potentially toxic, unhealthy indoor environments, especially in newer buildings. Walls, flooring, furniture, paints, sealants and coatings all emit toxic chemicals, a situation dramatically worsened when high air pollution increases the amount of toxins inhaled attached to dust particles.

Which harmful substances can be found in buildings?

  • VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) - VOCs are typically released from building materials and include formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, isocyanates, benzene, toluene and xylene. They are emitted mostly from coatings, sealants, finishes, paints, glues and pressed wood furniture
  • SVOCs (Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds) - SVOCs are emitted more slowly and over longer periods of time than VOCs. They readily attach to dust particles and are thus inhaled. Typical compounds are phthalates present as softeners, halogenated flame retardants (for example PCB), perfluorochemicals found in water- and dust-repellant coatings and polyaliphatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in tar-based glues and sealants
  • Biological contaminants - poorly-constructed buildings may contain "temperature bridges" in walls and ceilings which result in moisture traps where mold and bacteria are prone to develop. Biological contaminants are the most common triggers for asthma and allergies 
  • Heavy metals -  these can be found in roofing, solder material, dyes for paints and textiles; stabilizers used in vinyl plastics, wire insulation and other PVC products. Lead, mercury, antimony, chromium and cadmium are the most commonly-occurring heavy metals found in this context.
  • Asbestos - this is a natural mineral fiber and a respiratory irritant known to cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or "asbestosis" and more seriously, a type of lung cancer.. It can be found in insulation, pipes, cement and cardboard materials. Additionally, dangerous amounts of asbestos can be released after building activities such as renovation and demolition.
  • Artificial  mineral fibers - these are found in similar settings and have similar effects to asbestos


  • Avoid moving into new buildings which are not tested and certified
  • Avoid apartments with PVC flooring
  • When buying furniture, avoid pressed fiberboard products as these have been shown to emit formaldehyde
  • Daily ventilation, except when the air pollution goes over AQI 200
  • Ensure your home/office/school is tested for harmful substances
  • Get mold removed professionally and control indoor humidity 
  • Get the right air purification system
  • For new building projects, prevention is the best strategy! Choose safe materials and construction techniques to ensure a healthy indoor environment:

Which construction alternatives are safe?

  • Adhesives, sealants, paints etc. should be water-based or at least low VOC
  • Formaldehyde-free wheatboard and solid wood are safer than composite wood and fiberboard
  • For sub-flooring and underlay strawboard, isoboard or mixed materials made from wheat, straw, sugarcane or recycled paper bonded with nontoxic agents, are most suitable
  • When possible, choose mechanical fastening over glues
  • Marble, granite, concrete, stone and ceramic tile are a safe choice for counter tops
  • Ceramic tile, terrazzo, brick, hardwood, pine, natural rubber, true linoleum, colored concrete, cork and bamboo are suitable healthier alternatives to vinyl flooring
  • Gypsum-based drywall (Sheetrock) may predispose to mold and emission of toxic gases so a better choice is paper-free gypsum (there are special mold resistant types), plaster or veneer plaster
  • Natural insulation materials like cork, wool, cement or plant-based foams are safer than fiberglass, rockwool or polyurethane (PU) based foams
  • Beside the choice of materials, the construction method  itself (avoiding humidity traps, providing effective insulation, lighting and noise management, effective waste water and ventilation systems) and the interiors themselves are just as important for a healthy indoor environment