Tools For Making Buildings and Products Safer

Tools For Making Buildings and Products Safer

Chemical bottles - CC license by C. G. P. Grey (Flickr)

 When architectural firm Perkins and Will was designing the Maimonides Cancer Center in New York, it set out to exclude carcinogenic materials, but wasn't able to meet that goal.

"We know what the manufacturers choose to disclose to us...but we don't know, I'd say, about 90 percent of what the product is," Peter Syrett, associate principal and senior project designer with the firm, said during a recent webcast.

Perkins and Will has since developed a precautionary list of substances that have been called out by government and health groups as ones to avoid, and in the interest of making all buildings healthier, it shares that list publicly.

Other companies and groups have also responded to the growing calls for safer environments, as well as building certification programs, by creating new tools and databases to show what chemicals should and should not be used.

"We're not operating from a common knowledge base," said Renee Hartsook, senior toxicologist at Underwriters Laboratory, during the webcast, "Benign by Design: Finding the Right Tool," the first in a three-part series.

In the 1980s when toxic gas and chemicals leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, and killed thousands, chemical exposure was mainly thought of in terms of large accidental releases, Hartsook said, but now more focus is on the small, continuous exposures to chemicals that are used in everyday items.

One hurdle is getting the right information to all parties involved in making and using products, said Hartsook. But U.S. chemical policy holds the government responsible for proving a chemical is dangerous, and it has historically allowed for companies to make broad claims of confidentiality on what's inside substances.

As Syrett said, some manufacturers don't disclose what's in products, and distributors likely don't know everything that's inside what they're selling. So along with creating its precautionary list, Perkins and Will goes through as many sources as possible to get data on products and the chemicals in them. Starting with publicly-available data, the company then gathers information from testing organizations as well as second and third party verifications, contacts manufacturers directly, and talks to specialists.

They also use the Pharos chemical and material library developed by the Healthy Building Network. Pharos includes more than 9,000 chemicals, screened through 26 chemical hazard lists and scored based on their hazards.

Although there are more sources for getting details on the dangers posed by chemicals, some companies will likely continue to be reluctant to reveal everything that goes into their products.

"When you go from industry to industry, there is a big difference in how much the threat of reverse engineering is," Hartsook said. "(Some companies) do know that certain trade secrets are what make then competitive in the marketplace."

The next Benign by Design webcast, "Characterizing and Balancing Risks," is March 16, followed by the final installment, "Implementing Green Chemistry by the Use of Alternatives Assessments," on March 30.


Chemical bottles - CC license by C. G. P. Grey (Flickr)