Talk of safer chemicals advances at Greenbuild Expo 2013

Cradle to Cradle

Talk of safer chemicals advances at Greenbuild Expo 2013

Paints cans photo by Andreas Kraus via Shutterstock

This year's Greenbuild conference, which just wrapped up in Philadelphia, was a milestone on the path to safer chemicals and building materials.

For the first time this year, an entire day of the U.S. Green Building Council's conference was devoted to presentations about why disclosure and elimination of hazardous chemicals in building products is the way forward.

We spend up to 90 percent of our lives in the indoor environment, so it is essential to reduce hazardous chemicals in building materials. As Greenbuild speakers drew the connection between building products, our health and the environment, the room was packed with designers, architects and manufacturers who made a real commitment to move toward safer chemicals.

One participant who had been attending Greenbuild for five years said this was the most inspiring day of the conference series  yet.

LEED's important new standard

To help move this commitment forward, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED v.4 standard now offers two credits -- one for optimizing products by screening out hazardous chemicals and another for disclosing ingredients. This represents a significant stride forward for those working across industries to incorporate health considerations into decision making. 

That said, there is still a lot to learn as the USGBC heads down this path. Thanks to a generous grant from Google to support the Material Health initiative, six fellows are being supported to research the true health impacts of buildings and building products and to support USGBC in having the greatest impact. These fellows will regularly contribute their insights, research and commentary to the Green Building Information Gateway Insight Blog


Healthy (and unhealthy) environments are complex ecosystems. A recent publication by Dr. Ted Schetter, The Ecology of Breast Cancer, points to chemicals, along with nutrition, exercise, sunlight (Vitamin D), radiation and social stress, as factors that exist within the complex ecosystem of health and disease. It is never just one of these factors, he points out, but their presence and interactions that lead to health or disease outcomes. He concludes that breast cancer is a design problem, and the factors he identifies are all relevant to the built environment and building materials. We can be part of the solution and help reduce breast cancer by redesigning our built environment. 

These are exciting times for green builders and manufacturers of products designed to support healthy environments, with interesting new tools being used to earn both LEED v.4 credits.

A roadmap to safer chemicals

To earn the credit for optimizing products by screening out hazardous chemicals, companies are using GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals. GreenScreen is the first free, publicly accessible chemical hazard assessment method. It benchmarks chemicals on a scale of 1 to 4 (high hazard to low hazard), enabling companies to identify chemicals of high concern to human health or the environment and identify safer alternatives.

The goal of GreenScreen is to promote the design, manufacture and use of inherently safer chemicals. GreenScreen is becoming a global standard for chemical hazard assessment, and leading brands are using it as a tool to understand chemical hazards and guide their purchasing and product design and development choices.

Hewlett-Packard, for example, is eliminating toxic phthalates and flame retardants from its products. In order to ensure the alternatives are safer, it requires suppliers to provide GreenScreen assessments for chemicals they are replacing and seek to avoid GreenScreen "Benchmark 1" ("high hazard") chemicals.

Staples uses GreenScreen as a "scientific, pragmatic and common-sense approach to help product designers and businesses identify and select safer chemicals," according to Roger McFadden, vice president and senior scientist for Staples, Inc. 

"Staples is committed to collaborating with our suppliers to offer products that address environmental impacts throughout their lifecycle," McFadden said. "A growing number of retailers are calling on their suppliers to compete not only in terms of product performance and cost, but in finding green chemistry solutions to reduce impact on the environment and human health."

Wal-Mart recently announced requirements for manufacturers of personal care and cleaning products to phase out certain hazardous chemicals. As they reformulate, these companies will need to assess the safety of alternatives, using tools such as GreenScreen, to make sure they are not jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

GreenScreen has been cited and used as a key assessment tool for substituting hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives in state regulations in Maine and Washington. The eight states in the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesotta, New York, Oregon and Washington) also point to GreenScreen as the preferred method for hazard assessment in the IC2 Alternatives Assessment Guidance.

Inclusion of GreenScreen in the LEED v.4 green building standard will help drive green chemistry innovation in this important sector.

Earning credits for disclosure

Companies can earn the LEED v.4 disclosure credit by identifying ingredients in building products using the Health Product Declaration. Manufacturers who do not wish to disclose certain chemicals in their products can do a full GreenScreen assessment of those chemicals and report, according to the LEED credit.

Manufacturers can qualify for a second LEED credit if their products do not contain GreenScreen Benchmark 1 chemicals. This can be determined by using either the GreenScreen List Translator, a compilation of authoritative and well-vetted lists of hazardous chemicals, or the full GreenScreen assessment for increased value. In addition, GreenScreen assessments can be used towards Cradle to Cradle certification, which provides another pathway to the LEED credits.

To learn more about how to earn these credits, see GreenScreen's LEED Guidance page.

Editor's note: This headline originally misstated that a representative of Staples spoke at Greenbuild 2013.  Paint photo by Andreas Kraus via Shutterstock