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concrete Return to the Building Green Index

February 18, 2010

New product-safety tools put focus on building materials

  • Online databases reveal health and environmental information for thousands of chemicals found on the job site.
    Perkins + Will


    For at least the last 10 years the green building marketplace has been asking questions of materials manufacturers and suppliers that they cannot always answer: What chemicals does your product contain? Does your product contain any chemicals that are harmful to human health?

    Transparent information on chemical content of materials has been limited, and there have been few tools available that can help consumers and designers determine the truth.

    Why should we be concerned about the chemicals contained in building products? In January, the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign released a new report, “Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act.” The report shows the high costs to our health care system associated with chemical exposure. The chemicals highlighted in the report, such as phthalates and formaldehyde, are chemicals regularly used in building products such as PVC flooring and insulation.

    Consumer power

    Demand for transparency in products is a trend that has fully emerged in the last year through a few different venues. The goodguide.com was launched at the end of 2008. It is a Web site that draws on 200 or so databases to rate and rank 70,000 consumer products on their environmental, health and social impacts.

    A Web-based tool developed by the Healthy Building Network provides quick information on building products that is similar to food labels on grocery items.

    It began as a University of California, Berkeley research project and now has been so successful that it now has an iPhone app to allow consumers to scan barcodes in the store. The mission of the goodguide is to shift the balance of information and power in the marketplace back to the consumer.

    The call for more transparency in products was captured in Daniel Goleman’s 2009 book, “Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.” The book argues that new information technologies such as goodguide will create “radical transparency,” allowing us to know the environmental, health and social consequences of what we buy.

    Goleman argues that increased transparency will change the marketplace for the better. Once shoppers know how to compare products ecologically, the market share will shift and in turn support healthier products. Goleman states, “Historically there has always been a vast information asymmetry, with consumers knowing next to nothing about the true ecological impacts of what they buy.”

    In July 2009, Walmart announced that together with an academic consortium they will develop a sustainability index for rating 1,500 of its hundreds of thousands of products. Transparency in consumer products is well on the way. But what about building materials? How does a designer or specifier know what is contained in the materials we build with?

    An eagerly anticipated tool called Pharos opened its online doors in November. The Pharos tool was developed by the Healthy Building Network with the support of grants and subscriptions. The idea of Pharos is simple — to provide graphic at-a-glance information on building products similar to that currently on the food you purchase at the supermarket.

    Pharos is not a certification or a label, it is a database that allows subscribers to check over 9,000 chemicals against 21 authoritative hazard lists. It also offers comprehensive health and environmental information on over 100 building products, with the amount of products increasing over time. Pharos is likely to become the leading source of information on materials for green building practitioners.

    Precautionary list

    At the end of last year Perkins+Will released a tool called the precautionary list, which has the intention of being a catalyst for market change. The goal of the list is to highlight chemicals that are listed by government agencies as having negative health issues and the classes of building materials where they might be commonly found, while offering available alternatives in an effort to push the building industry to embrace healthier buildings.

    On the Web
    Several online sites are dedicated to improving safety and transparency for consumer and builder products:

    Specifically, it features 25 chemicals broken into typical building categories such as wood treatments, indoor-air quality, ozone-depleting gasses and heavy metals. Each entry describes the chemical and provides links to vetted government databases, such as California’s Proposition 65 list developed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which catalogs chemicals and their known health hazards.

    The emergence of these tools will provide the green building marketplace with the information and education needed to start making better-informed choices.

    Still, there is much work to be done; many of the chemicals listed on Pharos are contained in building materials that are used habitually by building owners and designers. Moving them away from products that they use over and over will be challenging until good alternatives are tried and tested. Consumer loyalty could limit the speed of change.

    But as Goleman explains in his book, there is a circle that emerges when companies disclose ingredients and sources of their products. Consumers become aware and markets are moved toward less harmful products. It may take time, but the emergence of the tools I have mentioned indicates that the clock has started ticking.

    Amanda Sturgeon is a senior associate in the Seattle office of Perkins+Will and is the co-director of the Sustainable Design Initiative for the firm nationally.

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