Cancer Rates, Regulation, and Why the Building Industry Needs to Step Up

Cancer causing chemicals have been found in 90-100% of dust samples in American homes. Tiny particles of degrading, toxic building materials are constantly making their way into the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch. While much of the responsibility of keeping homes free of toxic chemicals has been put on consumers, there’s not enough emphasis on the source of these chemicals: the many toxic materials that our buildings are built with.

This is just one of the reasons why it’s become so important to me that the building industry do more to protect people’s health. It is crucial to recognize that government regulation isn’t enough. Building professionals must take extra care to investigate the materials which are used in construction every day and will impact the health of generations to come.



Nearly 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes. 80-90% of cancers are caused by lifestyle and environmental factors—only 10% are caused by genetics (National Cancer Institute).

When environmental factors play this big of a role in cancer rates, we must start questioning the safety of our environments.



Reports such as Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk created by the President’s Cancer Panel have helped me better understand why we cannot rely on the government or current regulations to protect our health and wellbeing.


Below are some high level takeaways from this report along with references on more recent findings.


1. New chemicals are being created and incorporated into industry at a pace that compromises public safety.

2. Government regulation has not been effective due to the following major problems:

  • Inadequate funding and insufficient staffing.
  • Fragmented and overlapping authorities coupled with uneven and decentralized enforcement.
  • Excessive regulatory complexity.
  • Undue industry influence.

3. The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary in that it:

  • Requires incontrovertible evidence of harm before preventive action is taken.
  • Places the burden on the public to show that a given chemical is harmful.
  • Does not consider potential health and environmental impacts when designing new technologies.
  • Discourages public participation in decision making about the control of hazards and the introduction of new chemicals.


As building professionals, we have the power to shape environments. The decisions we make today can change what will be found in the dust samples collected decades from today and the health outcomes of those who have lived in, worked in, and frequented our buildings.


I urge you to:


  1. Be proactive and use the pre-cautionary principal to guide your material decisions. When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically which may take decades to do.
  2. Select healthier products in your buildings. Individuals working in the building industry can have influence by selecting non-toxic products and communicating with manufacturers and trade organizations about their desire for safer products.
  3. Push for transparency. Request Health Product Declarations from manufacturers. Full disclosure will level the playing field and put pressure on manufacturers to find healthier ingredients to compete in the market.

Spec Matters is a free newsletter and website of healthy building information empowering the building industry to write healthier specifications and make better material selections.


This project developed out of my experience of losing my mother to cancer in 2020. I have witnessed its destructive effects on someone I loved, those around me, and the army of people (researchers, doctors, and nurses) who have been battling with this disease for decades, trying to find cures. While I cannot help those who have already been impacted by cancer, I can do my part as an Architect to ensure my due diligence in selecting materials and creating spaces that have been vetted for potential carcinogens. I can equip myself with the knowledge to educate and collaborate with clients in shaping out budgets which support healthier buildings—one material, one decision at a time.


It’s time for the building industry to do its part.


Not sure where to start? Sign up for our Spec Matters newsletters. You’ll receive free, bi-weekly, 5-minute informational reads that break down different products and their health concerns and provide tips on how to create healthier specs.


Healthier environments start with getting informed. Please join me on this journey.


Ramune Bartuskaite is the CEO and Founder of Spec Matters. She is a licensed architect at FIFTEEN Architecture + Design in Philadelphia.

Ramune is a Lithuanian immigrant and a first-generation graduate. She holds a Masters of Architecture from
the University of Pennsylvania, a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture with a Marketing Minor from Miami
University, and a Certificate in Healthier Materials and Sustainable Building from Parsons School of Design.
At Penn, she was awarded the Alpha Rho Chi Medal for leadership, willing service, and promise of
professional merit and in 2019, she co-edited a book titled Women [Re]Build: Stories, Polemics, Futures. The
book highlights female architects, designers, scholars, and educators who are pushing the boundaries of
architecture and design.

Ramune is a Co-Chair of ULI Philadelphia’s Women Leadership Initiative and sits on the board of a non-profit
called Rise First which serves first-generation and low-income students and professionals, helping improve
equity and access to education for underrepresented groups.