Skip to main content

The Right Chemistry

So long, toxics: A builder’s guide to safer chemicals

With retailers from Crate and Barrel to Home Depot reevaluating their stance on toxic materials, the time is ripe to seek safer alternatives during the building process.

Health experts long have recognized the risks of individual and groups of toxic chemicals in building products, beginning with lead and asbestos and continuing to formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, mercury, arsenic, certain phthalates and flame retardants.

These chemicals, among many others, are associated with a range of adverse health and environmental effects, including cancer, obesity, asbestosis, ecotoxicity, endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity. 

"At their worst, our building materials and designs, and our choices about location, building construction, operation and maintenance, contribute to some of the key public health concerns of modern society," the U.S Green Building Council (USGBC) noted in one report (PDF). "At their best, our buildings and communities can be powerful protectors and promoters of health and well-being." 

To that end, the USGBC, International Living Future Institute, Google, Healthy Building Network and many others in the green building movement are trying to boldly move manufacturers from passive chemical management strategies to active use of inherently safer alternatives. 

For instance, a new report by Clean Production Action lays out how the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals tool can be used in the LEED green building certification program, elucidating the role green materials can play in sustainable building projects.

Before diving into the details of how companies can be rewarded for considering the chemical composition of their buildings, however, it’s important to understand the role chemical management plays in overall business strategy.

Paying the price for toxicity

Today, business strategies for chemicals management fall into three broad categories:

  1. "We are in compliance with all laws and regulations" — a passive strategy where the focus is solely regulatory compliance
  2. "We do not use [name the hazardous chemical du jour] in our products" — a beginner step beyond regulatory compliance to avoid known toxic chemicals
  3. "We have comprehensive chemical policies and procedures that go well beyond regulatory compliance" — an active strategy that takes a holistic approach to chemicals by knowing and disclosing chemicals in products and supply chains, identifying hazardous chemicals and using safer alternatives

Lumber Liquidators is the latest poster example of a company that paid the price for employing the passive strategy to chemicals management: its stock price plummeted by over 70 percent and the CEO resigned over market concerns with formaldehyde in its products. This all occurred without any regulatory action.

Now, a few companies in the building sector are taking the lead and beginning to step away from the passive strategy of regulatory compliance.

With encouragement from Mind the Store campaign, Ecology Center, Healthy Building Network and others, Home Depot opted to eliminate phthalates from its vinyl flooring due to the widespread availability of safer, equally effective and price equivalent alternatives, for example. Lowe’s and Menards followed suit shortly thereafter.

Similarly, many furniture manufacturers and retailers rapidly are running away from unnecessary flame retardants in foam and fabric. Ashley Furniture, the nation’s largest furniture retailer, joined IKEA in announcing in 2015 that it would eliminate the use of flame retardants in furniture. Many other producers and retailers aren’t far behind with their furniture products, including Walmart, Crate and Barrel and La-Z-Boy.

Beyond avoiding the Lumber Liquidator-type crises that emerge from a passive strategy to chemicals management, what are the incentives to use inherently safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in products and supply chains?

New tools for building materials

The USGBC set a new course for health considerations in buildings and building products with the release of the new LEED v4 standard in November 2013. LEED v4 establishes a systematic approach for the building community to address chemicals of high concern to people and the environment.

Specifically, the two credit options under the "Building product disclosure and optimization" suite advance better knowledge of chemicals in products through "disclosure" and the selection of safer alternatives through "optimization." These credit options also present an opportunity to use tools such as the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals.

Since the release of LEED v4, however, there has been a steep learning curve for manufacturers, LEED Practitioners and the design community. All are scrambling to keep current with the rating system and its approach to inherently safer materials.

Transparency is a critical step in changing the chemical content of products and improving the health of indoor environments.

To address this challenge, Clean Production Action released a new report, "How to Use GreenScreen for LEED v4,"  which provides an overview on LEED requirements and defines terms that are critical for meeting them.

The "How-To" guide helps achieve material transparency by showing users how to develop a product inventory that identifies a comprehensive list of chemicals in products. Because it makes knowledge of ingredients available to the building community and the public in general, this level of transparency is a critical step in changing the chemical content of products and improving the health of indoor environments.

With many material ingredient reports published being "less than accurate," included in this guidance is direction on how this information can be third-party validated to ensure compliance with LEED v4 requirements. Third-party certification organizations, such as GreenCircle Certified, played a key role in the development of these certification processes.

Seeking safer alternatives

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." The more customers know about the chemicals in their products, the better prepared they are to avoid chemicals of high concern and to request safer alternatives.

This new guidance outlines how to implement "material ingredient optimization" using the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals to determine the inherent hazards of chemicals, which empowers users to identify safer alternatives.

The USGBC emphasizes the importance of replacing toxic chemicals with safer alternatives, thus avoiding so-called "regrettable substitutes" where, for example, a manufacturer replaces one toxic flame retardant with another that is equally toxic.

This “optimization” credit provides points for both avoiding chemicals on established "hot" lists, as well as for selecting inherently safer alternatives.

Individual consumers have been forcing a market shift over the past few years, demanding more transparency and the use of safer chemicals in everyday products such as cleaners, cosmetics and baby gear.

LEED v4 places the built environment into the mainstream of this movement and the potential impacts cannot be overstated.

Construction materials comprise 75 percent of the raw materials used in the U.S. every year. It is a massive industry.

By applying the GreenScreen to the materials we use to build the places we live, learn and work, we’ll make a tidal shift towards a safer, sustainable marketplace and a less toxic, healthier world.

More on this topic