Cranes on construction site
Construction workers looking at site plans

What Kinds of Pollution is Construction Responsible For?


The construction industry is responsible for practically every great wonder of the modern world, has made breathtaking modern architecture possible, and is the foundation on which all other industries are built. After all, you can’t run an office if you don’t have an office, you can’t drive to work (easily) if there isn’t a road, and you can’t go home if it doesn’t exist.

But before we get too appreciative of the construction industry, we need to address the elephant in the room: its pollution. For all the great things that have been built, there are countless other things extracted, transported, and needlessly wasted.

The construction industry has been making strides to a greener future, but there’s still quite a way to go. So let’s look at exactly which kinds of pollution the construction industry is responsible for.

The Broad Categories of Pollution

Broadly, pollution can be categorised as water, air, or ground contamination. However, these aren’t mutually exclusive. Something that starts as air pollution, for example, eventually ends up back on the ground, which then often ends up back in water.

Sometimes these pollutants are broken down in the process of leaching into groundwater, or filtered and reduced by plants – but while this removes it from the cycle temporarily, it also has the effect of building up in plants and wildlife within that cycle. Eventually, things like plastics find their way back to humans through our diet and environments.

With microplastics recently being found in human breast milk for the first time, it’s no longer possible to separate pollution of the earth from real harm to humans.

Large Particle Pollution

Construction accounts for 30% of London’s large particle pollution and 18% the whole nation’s PM10 pollution. This is a huge issue because PM10 pollution (any particles over 0.01mm in diameter) accounts for a wide range of health problems – and not only for people who work in construction.

If you’ve ever spent time, for example, sanding wood in a poorly ventilated space, you’ll know how pervasive fine dust can be.

Over the longer term, those exposed to large particle pollution can lead to serious health issues such as:

  • Cardiovascular & respiratory diseases
  • Coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath
  • Asthma symptoms worsened
  • Lung cancer
  • Strokes
Fuel Emissions

Another form of serious air pollution from construction is that of emissions from engines. Currently, a great deal of construction relies on diesel-powered plant machinery, large transport vehicles, and portable petrol or diesel generators to power construction in remote locations.

While the engine & fuel sources are the most suitable at the moment, all these create huge amounts of CO2 and Nitrogen Dioxide emissions, as well as a huge amount of particulate matter. And while construction isn’t necessarily the only driver here, exhaust emissions are is a primary factor in the human-accelerated climate change that we’re experiencing right now – with four of the five hottest summers on record having been since 2003.

Chemical Pollution

Construction & building materials like paints, adhesives, fillers, and resins can also create problems – especially solvent-based materials. The gases they release can damage brain cells of those with immediate exposure (hence the “solvent abuse can kill” warning on all solvents) – but a lot of the chemicals often end up in soil and water, killing wildlife and poisoning plants.

Water Pollution

Groundwater can be polluted with large particulate matter whenever groundworks happen. When it’s just the large particulate matter of the local soil that’s contaminating the groundwater, the worst thing to happen is often that the flow of the aquifer gets blocked, causing changes to soil composition (leading to ground heave or subsidence).

While this may result in pricey foundation repair bills, this tends to not have the effect of having long term consequences for the environment. But other runoff from plastics, fine particulate matter, and chemicals can wreak havoc on ecosystems. The more particulate matter in a river, for example, the less light is able to pass through, so lots of the plant life dies – which means the animal life does too.

Significantly, ground surface rivers feed a number of public reservoirs in the UK. If these get contaminated then it creates yet more problems downstream.

Noise Pollution

Noise pollution may seem like an innocuous problem – but prolonged noise pollution can have surprising effects. Expectedly, it can cause hearing loss, but some less expected consequences are increased blood pressure, heart disease, and problems associated with sleeplessness. Cumulatively over time, this results in significantly increased stress – particularly in children.

But excessive noise also causes wildlife to avoid the area. Again, many don’t consider this an issue, but if pollinating insects suddenly stopped pollinating then we’d be in big trouble!

Quarries Leave Permanent Marks

While quarries are necessary for most mineral forms of modern construction, there’s no denying that they leave a permanent scar on the landscape – evident from quarries dating back thousands of years. While changing landscapes isn’t in itself necessarily a problem – it needs to be done in such a way as to mitigate systemic effects cropping up later down the line.

Waste sent to landfill

And last but by no means least – a lot of modern construction contributes to landfill waste. While a lot of the mineral elements are reused (leftover gravel, for example, can easily be reused elsewhere), it still accounts for waste from things like paint tubs, sealant & adhesive tubes, and broken tools.

Make Foundation Construction Eco Friendly with Clayboard

Ultimately, the pollution from the construction industry – especially the exhaust emissions – comes from the current limitations of technology. There simply isn’t a scalable way to haul tonnes of stone, gravel, and cement in an electric vehicle.

While we hope this is soon to change, one way that construction can immediately become more eco friendly is to opt for an environmentally friendly void former when building foundations. Find out more about our void forming solution here.

25 January 2023

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