RED LIST: Construction Materials in Marine Environments

Perkins + Will Architects developed a Precautionary List of materials commonly found in the built environment that may have the potential to cause harm to humans and the environment.  “Red List” materials include substances that have been classified by multiple regulatory agencies as having detrimental effects on humans, and unabridged Architecture believes that these materials should not be used in our projects if alternatives are available.  Many of our projects are constructed in coastal environments, and have a direct impact on aquatic life and water quality.  For the Marine Education Center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, we adapted the list to consider the impact on the marine environment: acute toxicity to animals, chronic toxicity to animals, toxicity to plants, and bioaccumulation.


The health effects of asphalt fumes on humans include headaches, skin rashes and skin cancer, throat and eye irritation, and coughing.  When asphalt is subjected to storm surge, it deteriorates into small pieces, leaching petrochemical components, and releasing glass and other aggregates into the land and water.  The impermeability of asphalt may also increase stormwater velocity, causing erosion.  Alternatives for asphalt roadways include concrete or gravel.


Metal with high zinc content is used for galvanized roofs and hurricane strapping in many coastal regions.  Although zinc is beneficial to humans, it can be toxic for marine organisms, invertebrates, and algae which form the food sources for larger fish, mammals, and birds, and cause bioaccumulation.  Zinc production also releases cadmium, a known human carcinogen and cardiovascular toxicant.  Many other metals are undesirable; copper is known to be toxic to aquatic life and suspected to be toxic in humans; tin, when combined with carbon, forms organotin compounds which are often used in ship or underwater structures, although they are reproductive and respiratory toxicants; and aluminum, which may have toxic effects on aquatic organisms. Alternatives that are better for marine life include stainless steel (which may contain chromium compounds linked to asthma in humans) or sheet metal with a painted finish (although these may contain Volatile Organic Compounds, which are known human carcinogens and toxicants.)


Wood is commonly used in construction for framing, cladding, and cabinetry, and is generally acclaimed as an innocuous and natural material.  However, when wood is exposed to weather, such as in outside decks, rafter tails, or bulkheads, it must be treated to resist rot and insect damage, and the treatment has the potential to harm the environment.  Chemicals used in wood preservatives – chromium, zinc, creosote, arsenic – have been linked to cancer and asthma in humans, and …  Until 2004, construction wood was treated with chromated copper arsenic, or CCA, although this method of treatment may still be used for pier and dock construction in the marine environment.  The most common wood treatment is alkaline copper quaternary or ACQ, which still uses copper particles, with suspected effects including blood, developmental, reproductive, and respiratory gastrointestinal toxicity in humans.  The coal-tar preservative creosote is still used in roofing materials, utility poles, and railroad ties.  Creosote is regulated as a pesticide, and consists of aromatic hydrocarbons including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX), and exposure can produce neurological impairment, hematological effects, and cancer in humans.


The potent carcinogen dioxin is created in the production of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and may cause severe health problems such as cancer, endocrine disruption, endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects, impaired child development, reproductive and immune system damage.  Dioxin was a contaminant in the herbicide Agent Orange, and has been found in the Love Canal in Niagara Falls and other toxic sites, causing evacuation of nearby communities.  Dioxins persist in marine sediments, where their effects continue for long periods, and may bioaccumulate through food webs, posing additional risks to humans who consume crabs, shrimp, and fish from these areas.  Vinyl materials are among the most widespread plastic polymers, but alternative materials include rubber and linoleum for flooring; PET plastic for wiring jacketing; cast iron for plumbing pipes; and thermoplastic olefin for waterproofing.


Aquatic ecosystems can tolerate some stress and occasional adverse effects, but the built environment within the coastal watershed can form a persistent source of pollutants as rainwater traverses the roofs, edges, and roadways and enters the nearby rivers and seas.  Materials that do not contain harmful substances should be considered if they are cost-effective, meet performance criteria, and offer the desired aesthetic qualities.  If no alternative materials can be identified, collecting and treating runoff before it enters the marine environment may provide some protection for aquatic species.



Environmental Protection Agency, National Recommended Water Quality Criteria – Aquatic Life Criteria Table:


Perkins + Will Transparency Precautionary List: