Counting Out Chemicals In Your Building Materials
Rethinking your building materials selections could contribute to a more sustainable outcome
By Jessie Buckmaster
Health has become a popular topic in the green building world, especially being either a part of or inherent to building certifications like USGBC’s LEED, International Living Future Institute (ILFI)’s Living Building Challenge, and the WELL Building Standard. Studies show the average American spends about 90% of our day indoors; during COVID, that has likely increased even more. For centuries, building materials were organic materials, and then around WWII we began to introduce chemicals like petroleum-based polymers, synthetics, and volatile solvents.
In the last couple decades, we’ve also included modern additives like biocides/pesticides, flame retardants, and nano-particles. There are an estimated 85,000+ chemicals used today.
Regulations have not kept pace with established research. The US EPA grandfathered in all known chemicals when it was created in 1976, and the burden is on the agency to provide enough proof of safety (or toxicity) for regulation instead of placing the responsibility on the manufacturer or industry. We have “known knowns,” components that are documented to lead to health issues,
like lead and asbestos. “Known unknowns” have some indication that there are health effects, maybe over long periods of time, not fully understood. And then the “unknown unknowns,” chemicals that we just don’t know a lot about with possibilities of exposure unrecognized. Currently only about nine chemicals have been banned or partially banned in the United States.
We look at the entire life cycle of a product to understand how chemicals in building products affect more than just the building occupants. There are the workers at manufacturing facilities. There are the frontline communities, which are neighborhoods surrounding factories that tend to be disadvantaged communities and predominantly people of color who are exposed to polluted air and water. There are the construction workers installing, cutting, applying these materials on site. And at the end of life, if a building were to catch on fire, many of these chemicals are especially toxic and firefighters are exposed, causing significantly higher rates of certain diseases.
So how can we be conscious and build healthier buildings? We’re seeing building certifications and industry organizations tackle this head on and provide some helpful resources for design and decision making. Healthy Building Network has consolidated significant amounts of research and put together programs such as Pharos and Common Products for accessing chemical hazard data. Green Screen Chemicals has a list to quickly identify chemicals of high concern.
Demand is driving market transformation, and manufacturers are beginning to respond. I have learned through my own projects that education is the most valuable entry point. Many manufacturers want to be a part of the solution, and this is currently a large market transformation. Helpful tools include Health Product Declarations (HPD) which are a framework for manufacturers to list their ingredients and known health hazards for consumer transparency (a credit option within LEED). These can be found in several databases for building products including Sustainable Mind Transparency Catalog and Mindful Materials. ILFI created the Red List, representing the worst in class chemicals to eliminate from buildings, as part of their program Living Building Challenge. They also created a transparency program for Red List-free or compliant products, called a Declare label, a simple one-page document that acts like a nutrition label for building products. Building product retailers have also been paying attention. Both Home Depot and Lowe’s have established safe chemical policies for the products that are sold in their stores, so certain chemicals will not be present in specific categories like flooring, paint, and insulation.
Strategically, start with utilizing as many natural materials in your design as possible. You can “dematerialize,” which is to simplify design to where a minimal number of products is needed in the first place. Identify your own ‘chemicals of concern’ list and prioritize efforts there. There are now several thousand products with ingredient disclosure, many identified just in the last five or so years. Reach out to favorite or commonly used manufacturers and ask them to participate in a transparency tool likeHPD or Declare. Just as we have consumer choices around what is in our food, or where our clothing is made, soon it will be just as simple to quickly evaluate our building products for new projects and renovations.