Green Jobs, Cancer Risk, and the Building Materials Industry: High School Students Get the Connection

Sarah Gilberg | May 07, 2010 | Newsletter

The writing is on the wall for manufacturers of products and processes that use known and suspected carcinogens.  Or at least it’s in the President’s inbox.  The President’s Cancer Panel, an elite group of experts that has been dubbed “the Mount Everest of the medical mainstream” by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, released a report yesterday titled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk.”  The report is a call to action for a more rigorous and precautionary approach to chemical regulation, drawing particular attention to the need to reduce environmental and occupation exposure.  A big theme in their recommendations is transparency: “Workers, other populations with known exposures, and the general public require full disclosure of knowledge about environmental cancer risks.”

I came upon this report fresh out of the Good Jobs Green Jobs Conference in Washington, DC, where I had been tabling for the Healthy Building Network and the Pharos Project earlier this week.  I met a number of people who had experience working in construction and manufacturing or were otherwise concerned about worker safety.  They told me stories of times when their eyes watered and their lips went numb working with a particular adhesive, or of a relative who had cancer or other serious health problems after working in a chemical factory for many years.  As the President’s Cancer Panel states, and these workers have experienced, currently “the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful.” As we progress toward a green economy, it is our responsibility to demand that a green job is a healthy job, and to encourage a healthy workplace by transforming the market for building materials toward healthier products.

Around midday on Wednesday, a large group of local high school students came through the exposition.  Many knew nothing of the kinds of environmental health problems that have been linked to building materials, so I took it back to the basics. Here’s a sample conversation:

Student: Why healthy building materials? Are the building materials we use unhealthy?
Me: Well, have you ever been in a building while it is under renovation? Or when they’ve just put in a new carpet, or a new coat of paint?
Student: Yea! Like when they redid part of the school and we couldn’t go in there for weeks ‘cause it smelled like fumes and stuff.
Me: Exactly. That smell can come from toxic stuff in paints, adhesives, and other chemicals that they add to building materials to make them flexible, or strong, or fire-resistant.  We want people to know what’s in the building products they buy or work with and the potential hazards so that they can be healthier in their homes and schools and workplaces.
Student: Wow, that’s really good that you guys are doing that. This is important to know about. We shouldn’t be getting sick from buildings!

So, friends in the building materials industry, hear this: from high school students to construction workers and all the way on up to the elite medical experts, the nation’s call for transparency is getting ever louder, and it’s reaching the ears of our President. Be a part of the solution by getting involved in the Pharos Project.