Bill Walsh | January 13, 2010
On December 30, 2009, the US EPA initiated a process that could result in the regulation of health threats from four classes of chemicals that have been widely used in building materials. This action directs new attention to "green" building product standards that do not adequately account for health impacts, and underscores why transparency must be the cornerstone of future product standards and certifications, and the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Rating System.
The classes of chemicals listed by EPA as "chemicals of concern," include flame retardants, stain and water repellants, and phthalates (90% of which are used as softeners in flexible vinyl products such as floor and wall coverings). They are largely ignored by the certifications most widely used in the green building industry and recognized by LEED. As a result, LEED-rated projects - even LEED Platinum buildings - risk being cited as sources of exposure to EPA-listed "chemicals of concern" including endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins.
No one can say they didn't see this coming. The USGBC was first informed of the health concerns about phthalates in vinyl building products ten years ago and acknowledged the phthalate hazard in its 2007 Technical and Science Advisory Committee report.1 In 2004, the Environmental Building News called for a ban on chemical flame retardants that could not be proven safe. The Green Guide for Health Care suggests best practices for avoiding persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals such as the flame retardants and stain repellents listed by the EPA last month. HBN's own newsletter archive contains a backlog of articles on these chemicals dating back to 2002.2
But most green product standards and certifications still lag far behind governmental actions taken in the face of emerging science and mounting evidence of health risks. Efforts to meaningfully address chemical hazards in green standards are slowed or blocked by manufacturer trade associations who are active in, and frequently control, the stakeholder process. As a result, too often green standards and certifications mute rather than broadcast important market signals, such as new chemical regulations at the state level, chemical phase-outs by market leaders, or even EPA's newly-designated "chemicals of concern." This undermines the efforts of manufacturers trying to distinguish products that legitimately represent the leading edge of environmental health protection. The manufacturers of less healthy products use green certifications and standards to aid and abet their greenwash campaigns. Consumers are left confused and increasingly cynical when every product seems to have some sort of green label.
Phthalates, the subject of a decade of mounting evidence suggesting environmental and health hazards, and now listed by EPA as "chemicals of concern," are a classic illustration of this unfairness. When it comes to interior finishes such as flooring, carpeting or wall coverings, a green certification that does not make the easy distinction between products that contain phthalates and those that do not is fostering greenwash, plain and simple.
These will surely not be the last "chemicals of concern" that we find in products labeled "green." The Pharos Chemical and Material Library lists toxic hazard warnings for thousands of chemicals that are similar to the concerns that led to December's EPA action. Furthermore, fewer than 5% of the chemicals in use today have been fully tested for human health impacts.
One thing that distinguishes a truly sustainable company is a commitment and ability to get ahead of the emerging science and innovate its products to new levels of environmental and health performance. What's missing from current green standards and certification systems is the basic transparency that would allow buyers and specifiers to better identify those manufacturers. The threshold requirement for green product standards and certifications must be full disclosure of the product's ingredients and a precautionary assessment of their hazard based on the weight of available evidence.
 Assessment of the Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit for LEED, February 2007. See p.14 and p.81 Available at http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1633
 See e.g., "New Studies Raise Concerns About PVC Additives" (Summer, 2002); "Montreal, Kyoto now Stockholm: International Treaty Calls for Use of Alternative Materials" (March 22, 2004); "Building As If Breathing Mattered: PVC's Contributions To Asthma" (August 11, 2004); "Two Independent Critiques of Vinyl Building Materials Link Flooring & Asthma, Reproductive Problems & PVC Combustion" (November 1, 2004); "As Good AS Mother's Milk: The US Green Building Movement" (January 27, 2005); "New Study Finds Plasticizers a Major Contaminant In Household Dust" (March 22, 2005); "Bad News for Babies: Research Links PVC Plasticizer to Genital Deformities" (June 17, 2005); "PVC Softeners Used In Building Products Cited As Health Concern In Autos" (February 7, 2006); "The 'New Shower Curtain Smell' May Be Toxic To Your Health" ( July 1, 2008); "International Authorities Turn Up the Heat on Toxic Flame Retardants in Building Materials" (November 6, 2008); "Resilient Flooring and Chemical Hazards" (May 21, 2009); "Persistence of PFCs" (July 8, 2009). All are available in our Newsletter Archive. Also, use the search function at www.healthybuilding.net to locate fact sheets and white papers on these chemicals.