Adhesives, glues, sealants and fillers are typically used in large quantities for a construction or interior design project.

The room is decked out with environmentally-preferable furniture, resting atop certified sustainable flooring. Even the paper in the photocopier is 100 per cent recycled. But what about the substance that (literally) holds everything together – adhesives?

Adhesives, glues, sealants and fillers are typically used in large quantities for a construction or interior design project, and yet they can also be one of the most commonly overlooked materials in terms of their sustainability credentials. Adhesives can be used for a wide range of different surfaces and applications in a single space, ranging from glues in the furniture to the sealants used to waterproof a surface. The fact that adhesives are so ubiquitous means that they end up contributing far more than we might expect to potential indoor air quality problems in a building.

As with many other furnishings, fittings and building materials with an indoor application, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a big issue for adhesives. VOCs can trigger a range of health problems such as respiratory irritation, allergies, headaches and asthma. Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is a particularly common VOC found in adhesives and resins, despite its toxicity to humans.

Adhesives can have detrimental effects for the environment as well. Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and lithopone are a few examples of compounds often found in adhesives and related building materials. Production of these compounds uses large amounts of energy and generates large quantities of waste, as well as resulting in air and water emissions that carry a negative environmental impact.

Unfortunately, it can be one thing to specify low-VOC adhesives and sealants for a project, and another thing entirely to make sure they’ve actually been used. Dr Shaila Divakarla, Standards and Technical Manager for Good Environmental Choice Australia, say it’s common for tradespeople working on a project to quickly head to the nearest hardware store and just pick up whatever glues and sealants are available.

“The first issue is that you don’t know if they have looked for and picked up an environmentally-preferable adhesive,” Divakarla said. “And even if they did, you’re not totally sure if any claims of environmental friendliness by the manufacturer or supplier are legitimate.”

Evidence of third-party certification is one of the best ways to verify any claims that are made, but even this can pose challenges if the range of stock is limited at any particular hardware store.

The second issue is the difficulty of keeping accurate records of materials used in a project.

“In turn, checking those records is a very tedious process, so you essentially end up just having to trust that the specified materials are being used – but often you’re not sure whether this is actually happening,” said Divakarla.

Keeping track of what tradespeople are using in a project can be a challenge, but it’s not an impossible task – it just involves a little extra time and effort on the part of project managers. For example, Divakarla recalls hearing about one clever solution to the issue of policing sustainable adhesives use.

“The project manager investigated and purchased a whole stack of environmentally-preferable glues and adhesives and stocked them in a room on site,” she said. “All of the tradespeople working on site were then directed to only use products from that room whenever they needed something!”

Ensuring that a project uses environmentally-preferable adhesives that are better for human health can take a bit of extra planning, research, and forethought. However, the benefits that it will bring to the eventual occupants of a building are definitely worthwhile. With studies showing time and time again that indoor air quality has a direct effect on health and productivity, it’s important to limit the presence of any materials that may contribute to indoor air pollution. Thanks to the prevalence of adhesives, it pays to remember the role they can play when it comes to the indoor environment.