Harmful substances

Here you can find out the most important things about various harmful substances


Asbestos is the collective name for naturally occurring fibrous minerals. They are chemically very resistant, insensitive to heat and have a high elasticity and tensile strength. Due to these favourable construction properties, asbestos was used for decades as a building material or aggregate for a variety of products. It is estimated that at least 3,000 products were made with asbestos.

When asbestos materials decompose, asbestos fibres are released, which have the property of splitting and thus becoming smaller and smaller (400 to 500 times smaller than a human hair). When asbestos fibres are released during construction and demolition work, they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems. For example, the inhaled fibres can remain in the lungs for a long time, irritate the tissue and cause asbestosis (asbestos lung), lung cancer or mesothelioma (tumour of the lung or peritoneum). 

Due to the considerable health risks, the European Union decided in 1999 to completely phase out the use of asbestos with Directive 1999/77/EC. This directive contained a transitional regulation until 2005, although many states had already implemented the asbestos ban before 2005 (e.g. Germany 1993, France 1997). In the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, there has been a general ban on the marketing of asbestos since 2001.  

Despite this EU-wide ban, it can be assumed that asbestos is still present in a large proportion of existing buildings. Due to the long service life of building materials, there is a high probability that asbestos-containing building materials have been installed in houses that are more than 20 to 25 years old.

Asbestos can be present in many places in the home, such as:

  • Roof coverings, such as roof tiles, roof and corrugated sheets, roofing felt, sealing and welding membranes.
  • Insulation
  • Facade cladding made of panels, facade insulation
  • Drywall 
  • Parapet elements
  • Window sills, window putty, joint compound at window connections
  • Adhesives, fillers and jointing compounds
  • Floor coverings ("Cushion-Vinyl" multi-layer covering and "Floor-Flex" panels)
  • Thermal electrical appliances

This list is by no means exhaustive! 

There is a risk of asbestos being released during construction work. You should therefore always seek professional advice before carrying out maintenance, dismantling and renovation work!  Asbestos removal work may only be carried out by trained persons and is also subject to approval. You can find more information on the asbestos problem here:

Flame retardants

The term flame retardant covers a wide range of different organic and inorganic chemicals. Their use is adapted to the specific product, its material composition and intended use. The organic flame retardants consist mainly of brominated compounds, halogen-containing or halogen-free organophosphorus compounds or chlorinated paraffins. Inorganic flame retardants are primarily aluminium trihydroxide, magnesium dihydroxide or antimony trioxide (as a synergist of brominated FSM).

Flame retardants are used in easily combustible products. They are used, for example, to prevent foams in building materials, seating furniture, mattresses or cars as well as carpets, electrical cables and computer or television housings from catching fire quickly. In addition to the positive property of fire protection, however, a number of flame retardants have problematic environmental and health properties. Some of the halogenated flame retardants in particular are characterised by hazardous properties for health and the environment as well as high persistence and accumulation in the environment. According to the Consumer Advice Centre Germany, the substances can escape from the products and are found, for example, in indoor air and house dust. Some of the flame retardants can damage the human nervous system, make people infertile or be carcinogenic. The label "FR" for "Flame retardant" indicates that flame retardants are contained in the plastic. Electronic devices with the Blue Angel eco-label, for example, must not contain halogenated flame retardants. It is therefore worth asking at the time of purchase whether or which flame retardants are contained in the mattress or piece of furniture, for example.

There are now restrictions on various flame retardants, such as the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), which was for a long time the economically most important flame retardant for polystyrene insulation materials. Since spring 2016, there has been a widespread ban on trade and use in the EU. You can find more information here. The Stockholm Convention bans brominated flame retardants (BFRs) worldwide. However, there is an exemption in the European Union. According to BUND, plastic components from electronic waste processed into new products, such as toys or toiletries, can contain up to 1000 ppm of the hormone-damaging flame retardant PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ether) in the EU, i.e. 100 times more than is permitted for products made from new materials. 

PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) 

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are formed during combustion processes of organic materials (wood, coal and oil) and as so-called slags during the coking of coal and the refining of petroleum. To a lesser extent, PAHs occur as a natural component in petroleum or natural asphalt. PAHs are also formed in natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

The term PAHs is used to describe a group of different chemicals with a similar structure and effect. They are hazardous substances, some of which are classified as carcinogenic (causing cancer), mutagenic (causing changes in genetic material) and toxic (poisonous). PAHs in indoor spaces (for example from parquet adhesives) can have negative effects on indoor air. In the meantime, numerous carcinogenic PAHs have been banned in products that can come into contact with skin and mucous membranes. There is an EU-wide restriction with different limit values for different product groups.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are mainly found in the air, as they bind to soot, soil or dust particles and thus enter the atmosphere. They can also be found in building materials and wood preservatives. For a long time, tar containing PAHs was not only used as road surfacing, but also, for example, in tar paper. PAHs are also sometimes added to rubber and plastics as plasticisers (e.g. rubber shoes, handles of hand tools or bicycle handlebars), and can thus be absorbed through the skin. PAHs are also found in food and stimulants, such as smoked and grilled foods, cocoa, chocolate and tobacco smoke.

In terms of construction, tar products (high PAH content, from lignite or hard coal) and bitumen products (low PAH content; from mineral oil) must be distinguished. Visually, however, these building materials cannot be distinguished. In the building industry, tar products, which have a particularly high PAH content, were used primarily in the 1950s to 197s. But PAH was also used in pre-war buildings. The presence of PAH-containing building materials in older buildings is therefore not unlikely.

The following PAH-containing products were most frequently installed in buildings: 

  • Roofing felt, sealing and welding membranes 
  • Adhesives, fillers and grouts
  • Adhesives containing tar and pitch under wooden parquet and end-grain paving (“Stöckelpflaster")
  • Mastic asphalt, asphalt floor tiles
  • Waterproofing and roofing membranes
  • "Black coatings": solutions and emulsions for building protection
  • "Tar cork": tar-bonded cork granulate panels and shells 
  • Tar oils as wood preservatives (carbolineum)
  • Black ceilings

This list is by no means exhaustive! 

If you suspect that building materials contain PAHs, you should seek professional advice! Further information on PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) can be found here:

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)

Polychlorinated biphenyls are synthetically produced substance mixtures with 209 different individual substances whose technical properties and environmental relevance vary. 

PCBs are persistent, i.e. they accumulate in the organism and in the environment. In the meantime, PCBs are present everywhere in the environment and are ingested daily in small quantities with food. PCBs are toxic and suspected of being carcinogenic. Since 2004, the use of PCBs has been banned in Europe.

PCBs were mainly used as plasticisers (for example in joint sealants), as flame retardants (and plasticisers) in paints and varnishes and as insulating oils in the electrical industry (for example transformer oils, capacitors). Indoors, joint sealants are the most important source of PCBs. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, joint sealants containing PCBs can be found in about half of the concrete high-rise buildings built between 1955 and 1975 using skeleton and element construction methods. Polychlorinated biphenyls are the main contributors to indoor pollution in joints that come into contact with the interior.

In buildings, PCBs can also be found in the following components or products:

  • Paints and varnishes on mineral material, wood, chipboard ("Wilhelmi" boards), metals
  • Coloured stone plasters
  • Pouring and filling compounds
  • Floor covering adhesives
  • Small capacitors
  • Ballasts for fluorescent lamps
  • Reactive current compensation systems

This list is by no means exhaustive! 

If you suspect that building materials contain PCBs, you should seek professional advice! Remediation work on joint sealants containing PCBs must be carried out by specialist companies. Improperly carried out remediation or dismantling work can endanger the craftsmen involved, future building users and the environment.

Further information on PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) can be found at:

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