OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Question: Why is it that year after year some new device or process becomes part of our way of life and we discover later that this great new innovation is actually quite harmful and needs to be discontinued?

If you had gone into a theater in 1910, most likely you would have found the word “asbestos” emblazoned on the theater curtain in large print. The theater owner was being responsible in using this material, since theater fires were common at the time.

If we had a perfect time machine, we could go back in time and ask the inventor what the person was thinking when choosing asbestos for use in building and piping insulation? The response would likely be that a material was needed that would be reasonably fire resistant since the risk of a building fire was far greater than any known health danger.

However, we don’t have a time machine, and we can’t always predict future health consequences of using a particular product or process. Still, we must do a better job of determining health risks before materials are put into widespread use.

If we are to safeguard the public health, why do we use formaldehyde in building materials? Why did we use lead in piping, fuel, and paint? Why did we use asbestos so liberally?

The reason may be that these materials had properties that allowed for favorable design criteria to be achieved while an exploration of unintended health consequences was not undertaken, or perhaps was beyond discovery by the science of the time.

Architects and engineers are problem-solvers. They will specify materials and processes while designing buildings that serve the needs of the building owners.

The safety, health and welfare of the public are also an important element of the design process and most designers are sensitive to these requirements. Unfortunately, problems with building materials surface years after they are specified.

In a recent interview on Indoor Air Quality radio, Jim White, a consultant on indoor quality issues who worked for many years with the Canadian government agency responsible for research on indoor air quality issues, was asked what were the mistakes we have made in building houses. He cited the lack of adequate ventilation and the use of materials that proved to be harmful to our health.

The Asthma Regional Council’s recent webinar featured innovative research on exposures in homes in Cape Cod and California. An expanded universe of chemical hazards and an impressive list of toxic chemicals were found in these homes.

Our ignorance of the health effects allowed these materials to proliferate until we discovered the dangers and had them eliminated from the environment.

For example, the use of PCBs in caulk has been found to be a problem in older buildings that are now being renovated to limit energy usage.

These PCBs are released into the indoor air in large enough quantities to be a problem. Unlike lead, which must be disturbed to cause health problems, PCBs can migrate into dust particles and the air over a period of time, even if they are not disturbed.

Since they are found in most buildings erected between the 1940s and 1970s, they are now posing significant health risks to building occupants and should be mitigated.

We can cite many more examples of common building materials or chemicals that were introduced to solve one problem but have become a bigger environmental issue.

Because of this, it is vital that all innovations be examined not just in light of the individual design issue being solved, but for any unintended consequences of using the materials or processes.

An example of an innovation that is getting this kind of examination is nanotechnology developed for advanced materials and medical applications. The risks involved in manufacturing products that measure in the microns are being evaluated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as part of its manufacturing sector research agenda.

It is probably not reasonable to expect to uncover all of the problems inherent in new innovations; however, we need to be willing to ask the question and recognize the importance and necessity of doing the research that explores health effects.

The Maine Indoor Air Quality Council and other organizations can assist architects and engineers with the public health evaluation required.

We hope that vigorous review of new innovations with an eye on health effects will lead to a future free from the dangers of unintended harm resulting from the implementation of new technology.