Welcome, Greenbuild attendees, to the Asthma Corridor

James Vallette | October 21, 2014

The 2014 Greenbuild conference and exhibition is happening at the mouth of what has long been described as America’s Cancer Corridor.  Petrochemical plants line the Mississippi River between New Orleans, host to this year’s Greenbuild, and Baton Rouge, the state capital.    Here, multinational corporations have produced a huge share of this country’s carcinogens, like vinyl chloride monomer, the essential feedstock for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic products; and some phthalates, which makes PVC flexible. The industry’s impacts here spawned the environmental justice movement in the late 1980s.

These days, this serpentine industrial stretch could just as well be branded the Asthma Corridor, given the region’s growing production of essential feedstocks for polyurethane systems.  These systems are increasingly popular in building applications, including adhesives, insulation (spray polyurethane foam, known as SPF) and furniture foam.

The polyurethane market has grown tremendously in recent years. From Dow’s plant in Plaquemines to Geismar, home to both BASF and Huntsman Chemical, industrial complexes are constantly adding capacity to create the essential ingredients of polyurethane systems. These feedstocks include isocyanates, polyols, amines, formaldehyde, and chlorine; polyurethane plants are the second largest users of chlor-alkali processed chlorine gas.   The polyurethane industry routinely releases thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the region’s air and water, including feedstocks; and byproducts, like dioxins.

Betraying an implicit irony, BASF, the world’s largest chemical corporation, sponsored this week’s pre-Greenbuild Materials & Human Health Summit.

The majority of ingredients in polyurethane recipes are respiratory occupational hazards, particularly for installers of spray polyurethane foam who react these ingredients on-site, in people’s homes.  An increasing body of evidence amassed by a federal interagency task force (EPA, OSHA, NIOSH, and CPSC)  and the state of Californiaand other initiatives (see, for example, the recent [1] and upcoming [2][3][4] ASTM testing standards), indicates that isocyanates and amines from SPF are potential respiratory hazards for building occupants long after the foam is set.  No one knows for sure when the “curing” process ends, and whether isocyanates are ever truly, to use a common but poorly defined industry term, “bound in a matrix.”

Outside of sponsoring green building conferences, and entering into a so-called political truce with the U.S. Green Building Council, BASF and the industry’s lobbying wing, the American Chemistry Council, have been fighting off efforts to disclose, test, and regulate, polyurethane-based building materials, especially spray foam insulation. 

Tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at Greenbuild, environmental health expert Dr. Ted Schettler, green building certification specialist Michael Wolfe, and I, will offer some reality checking on the material healthfulness of these products, in a panel discussion called Asthmagens in Building Materials: The Problem and Solutions. 

Dr. Schettler will discuss the potential for building products to expose occupants to asthmagens. I will reveal which green building product certifications and standards address which asthmagens,and which don’t (hint: no system considers isocyanates yet). And Michael Wolfe will lead us out of the gloom, and identify strategies to minimize building occupant exposures to asthmagens like isocyanates.

I hope readers attending Greenbuild will join us for this hour-long session, and bring your questions.  Anyone unable to attend (even if you are not registered for Greenbuild) can read our panel’s research paper, courtesy of the US Green Building Council.  Further information is available on HBN's asthmagen website page. 

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The Asthmagens in Building Materials panel discussion takes place tomorrow (Weds., October 22, from 9:30-10:30 AM, in Room MR 252.   Also be sure to visit us at our HBN/Pharos booth (#1638), near the middle of the exhibition hall, a few booths left of BASF’s.

HBN has a busy schedule at Greenbuild on Wednesday and Thursday, at our booth and beyond. See HBN’s Greenbuild page for a complete list of events.

On November 21st, Sarah Lott, co-author of HBN’s 2013 report, Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection, will be speaking at the WEACT Conference in New York City.  A paper based on her presentation and report will be published in a forthcoming edition of Environmental Justice.

Follow Sarah, Jim, and the rest of the HBN/Pharos team on Twitter.