It's Hard to Be Us

Penny Bonda, FASID, LEED Fellow, HBN Board Member | March 08, 2012 | Policies

Many years after Kermit told us of the difficulty of being green, a friend put it another way. "Penny, it's hard to be you." She wasn't slamming me but rather commenting on the burden of being knowledgeable - an appreciation of sorts.

Here's what happened. While shopping in a grocery store my friend reached for a can of soup. I advised her instead to buy soup packaged in glass containers or boxes because of the bisphenol-A, or BPA, that is widely used in the linings of metal cans.

BPA, an endocrine disruptor, has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, birth defects, diabetes and other health threats. After a decade of research that convinced many retailers to remove BPA containing baby bottles and other plastic food containers from their shelves, a new study from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reported large increases in BPA levels in humans after eating just modest amounts of canned soup.

The results of this study surprised the researchers and will undoubtedly lead to further investigation. (Side note: Campbell Soup, the world's largest soup maker announced it will soon stop using BPA in the linings of its cans.) And it's not just soup cans. BPA and other endocrine disruptors are found in many products - thermal paper receipts, dental sealants, plastic water bottles and yes, building materials.

Typically they are found in epoxy-based products such as coatings, sealers, adhesives and fillers. As designers and specifiers it is our responsibility to find safer alternatives for BPA-containing products. Low-VOC water-based paints, for example, are BPA-free. But how do you know, and how do you know you're supposed to know?

There are resources a-plenty: P+W's Precautionary List, Pharos' chemical and material library, articles in Environmental Building News, and of course, right here in Healthy Building News.

My point is this: it's hard being me and it's hard being you. I have plenty of cans in my pantry, some of them surely containing BPA in the liners. But just as I can choose to limit the number of canned foods I buy or search for those that are safer, so can we purposely and stridently refuse to specify materials with BPA and other known toxins into our projects.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, if we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed. When ignorance ends, negligence begins and its antidote is responsibility. Making the choice to educate ourselves and then act on our newfound knowledge is the ethical obligation of every one of us.