wellness & health

This section inquires into the state of art on the subject of architectural barriers and how ceramic materials can help us overcome them, in initiatives relating to hygiene & safety, to studies and solutions to reduce indoor air pollution (the danger levels of which sometimes overtake those of the most polluted outdoor environments) and finally, on what Americans have defined as the ‘silent killer’, the radon.

The term ‘architectural barrier’ refers to any human edifice, construction or installation that impedes the autonomous and safe movement of those with muscular or sensory disabilities. Designers, architects, planners and others involved in developing public places are increasingly appreciative of the qualities ceramic tiles bring to open spaces and built environments. Ceramic tiles are recognised worldwide as an excellent paving or covering for public facilities like railway or subway stations, schools and hospitals, local and national government buildings, which fully comply with the rules on the removal of architectural barriers.

Some Italian tile manufacturers have found a helpful way for blind or partially sighted people to find out where they are and where they should be going. A series of instructions imprinted on the surface of special tiles allows the visually impaired to identify their position and easily follow a particular route. While making the lives of the blind easier and safer, the tiles are naturally made to the highest technical and aesthetic standards. This ‘artificial’ guide system is designed to complement such ‘physical’ guides as walls, pavements, roads, hedges and flowerbeds as well as the sensory ones of sound, touch and smell usually employed by the visually impaired to orientate themselves.

Radon is a colourless, odourless, naturally occurring gas, continuously generated from radium by the radioactive decay of Uranium 238 together with ionising radiation (IR). Radon emanates from the earth and on a smaller scale from certain construction materials and water pipes. It is present everywhere and in the open air it rapidly disperses and rarely reaches hazardous concentrations. The gas is much more harmful when present indoors, where it tends to accumulate, reaching levels likely to represent a risk to health (in the United States it has been called the silent killer because though imperceptible, it causes tissue damage and very serious illnesses).

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has stated that radon is the main source of ionising radiation to which the world’s population is exposed. It should be noted in this context that Radon is harmful to inhale. The hypothesis of a link between high concentrations of this gas and lung cancer was demonstrated early in the twentieth century. In 1988 the International Agency for Cancer Research of the WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION (WHO) identified radon as a “Class A” carcinogen, putting it in second place (10%) after tobacco smoke (85%) as the cause of lung tumours. The risk of developing such severe symptoms among smokers exposed to radon is around 15 times higher than non-smokers exposed to the same concentrations.

Indoor pollution
It is widely known that the problem of building contamination is a chief cause of so called ‘sick building syndrome’ and is responsible for many allergies and pathologies. Toxic or harmful substances – like dust, pollens, spores and bacteria as well as pathogenic germs and bacilli – can be brought indoors by building and furnishing materials, or blown in from outdoors.

The US ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (EPA) studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be 2-5 times, and occasionally more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels. These levels of indoor air pollutants may be of particular concern because most people spend about 90% of their time indoors.

Modern buildings clearly have a problem in providing a healthy or even appropriate indoor environment. The US EPA concedes that about 30% of new or renovated buildings have serious indoor air quality problems (IAQ), and ranks IAQ as the US most prominent environmental problem.

The key performance elements in any assessment of ceramic coverings are:

  • Easy maintenance;
  • Mechanical resistance: in other terms, resistance to load, shock, deflection, erosion and stamping.The mechanical properties of the support, and the outstanding surface performances of vitreous glazing compared to resistance to erosion and to thermal shock, give excellent guarantees of use of this materials in any situation;
  • Impermeability to liquids and resistance to chemical substances: water absorption is one of the parameters on which the classification UNI EN is based. It provides a measure of porosity (that significantly determines many of the properties and subsequent performance of products). The resistance to stains (and to chemical agents in general) drives the decision towards these products instead of others with the same destination of use that in time could become worn out and ruined;
  • Fire resistance;
  • Thermal shocks and weather change resistance: these properties are obtained through the shaping and through the more advanced glazing techniques, enabling ceramic tiles to adhere, even where there is dampness or other external factors.
  • Durability and stability in time: architects and designers use ceramic and glazed ceramic porcelain tiles to meet any technical or aesthetic exigency, knowing the surface will not degrade. In comparison to other finishing materials tiles have excellent resistance to light maintaining their colours unchanged for a very long time. Moreover they can undergo heavy duty cleaning without being damaged;
  • Salubrity: dusts, odours, smoke, germs, pollens do not penetrate the glazing. Moreover dust does not generally accumulate on ceramic tiles making them low maintenance;
  • Anti slip.The high quality of materials is guaranteed by their certified compliance with the most wide-ranging international standards.

Globalisation stimulates thinking about the relationship between aesthetics, innovation and research: a mix which has determined the success of Made in Italy for many years. In fact, with respect to other countries the aesthetic factor has always been an engine for change, thanks to the typically Italian capacity of conjugating scientific and humanist culture. We think of the scientist-artist Leonardo and, more recently, the many design and architecture masters that have known how to combine beauty and functionality.

Beauty, today as yesterday, is a determinant factor in characterising the final product, but it is also an element able to force technology to reach for innovative results. A growing number of observers consider innovation as an essential condition for development. In fact in a highly competitive market price competition is unsustainable, particularly if the new entries on the global market are from those countries where social and environment costs are ignored. Therefore, it is vital for Italian producers to maintain their substantial on-going capacity to differentiate supply (new products or new functionalities) and anticipate changes in taste. In this sense the synergy between industry and research centres, such as universities and institutes dedicated to theoretical speculation or to experimentation, is fundamentally important.

Even if operating within a traditional sector such as that of building materials (tiles and bricks have been manufactured and used for millennia), the Italian ceramic tiles industry has been able to invest in research activities that have driven the development of new and advanced products and processes. Today as yesterday tiles continue to be used to cover floors and walls but, thanks to heavy investment in innovation, many of today’s products have technical and aesthetic characteristics decidedly superior, different and more advanced with respect to products of the past.