Tom Lent | February 22, 2011
In a move sure to shake up the building industry, the European Union announced last week that under the terms of its new chemicals policy known as REACH, five chemicals used in building materials plus a sixth chemical used in cleaning product fragrances will be banned from use within the next three to five years unless an authorization has been granted to individual companies for their use.
These targeted substances include major building blocks of materials used routinely in construction:
Three phthalates (BBP, DEHP and DBP) - hormone-disrupting reproductive toxicants used in many flexible PVC products such as vinyl flooring, textiles and wall coverings
HBCDD - a persistent bioaccumulative toxicant (PBT) widely used as a flame retardant in polystyrene foam insulation
MDA - a known potent carcinogen used as a basic building block in the manufacture of polyurethane foams and MDI composite wood binders
The phthalates and flame retardant subject to the EU ban have also been targeted by LEED Pilot Credit 11, which offers LEED project teams an innovation credit for avoiding these chemicals in interior building products. In a survey of products that we've researched for the Pharos Project we found forty-six products that contained one of the targeted substances or were manufactured using one as a feedstock. At least equal numbers in each product category were free of the targeted substances.
The EU action is an important step in identifying toxic substances that do not belong in trade. It will impact global supply chains that produce and use the chemicals. These include vinyl, foam insulation, carpet backing, adhesives, and composite wood industries that supply products to the US building materials markets.
We can expect a fierce effort by some companies to obtain authorizations to continue production beyond the scheduled sunset dates. But, those authorizations can only give temporary reprieve. Forty-six more substances await an EU decision on a ban, and hundreds of thousands more are registered for assessment. This is just the beginning of a long process of chemicals policy reform to which the EU has shown a strong commitment.
How should the building industry navigate the long road ahead? Specifiers should include these emergent EU bans in their own evaluations of building products. As our Pharos survey reveals, there are numerous alternatives on the market today that do not use the banned substances. Manufacturers who heeded the early warnings about phthalates and chemical flame retardants deserve the leadership position their products will now command as their competitors race to find alternative formulations.
There is also an important lesson here about the phenomenon of "regrettable substitutions." The composite wood industry replaced formaldehyde-based binders with MDI. It is not possible to manufacture MDI without first making MDA, one of the first chemicals covered by the REACH ban. While MDI is safer for the end user, it is shifting the cancer burden to the workplace.
Reactively avoiding a single substance of concern - making it "Formaldehyde-free," "PVC-free," or "BPA-free" - does little to insure that the actual alternative contents are safe. This challenge calls for a more proactive, comprehensive approach to substitution for hazardous chemicals.
Fortunately, designers now have some powerful tools at hand to flag a broad range of chemicals of concern and help them move toward greener, safer chemistry and specifications. These include, for product designers, the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals, and for building material specifiers, the Pharos Project's Chemical and Material Library. With these tools designers are future-proofing products and projects against liabilities both ethical and financial, and taking a leadership position ahead of foreseeable bans, whether from government agencies like REACH or private entities like Wal-Mart.
For the health of our children, let's use smart product design and selection to transform the industry and make sure our building materials nurture, not threaten us.
Note: Read the Pharos Signal blog for the full list of chemicals and products affected by the REACH action.
 REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) is the regulation that governs the management of chemicals in the European Union. One key feature of REACH is that it reverses the burden of proof. Manufacturers and importers must now identify the dangers from their substances, assess potential risks and stipulate measures to rule out any damage to health and the environment. Another key feature of REACH is the creation of "sunset dates" for select highly hazardous chemicals. After the sunset date, the substance may only be used if a manufacturer obtains a specific authorization. Authorizations are time limited permissions granted only if the user can demonstrate "adequate control" (only for non PBT or vPvBs where a safe threshold can be determined) or if there are no alternative substances or technologies and the benefits outweigh the risks. More information about REACH is available at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/reach_intro.htm.
 We detail the common use of these phthalate plasticizers in our 2009 study, Resilient Flooring & Chemical Hazards: A Comparative Analysis of Vinyl and Other Alternatives for Health Care.
 Wal-Mart announced a new policy last week banning PBDE flame retardants from products in its stores and alerting suppliers that all halogenated flame retardants are under scrutiny.