When the world seems stranger than ever, it is helpful to keep in mind the bright spots. The Healthy Building Network research team found that increased manufacturer transparency and informed customer demand has produced many signs of hope in the building industry this year. Here are our top 5:
Formaldehyde-free mineral wool insulation: In 2015, the fiberglass insulation industry completed a transformation away from formaldehyde-based binders in all of its lightweight batts. This year, similar changes began in mineral wool insulation: Roxul and Owens Corning (Thermafiber) released mineral wool batts free of formaldehyde-based binders with more promised soon.
Lower toxicity flame retardants in plastic foam insulation: Plastic foam insulation products contain flame retardants in order to meet flammability requirements in building codes. These chemical flame retardants have historically been highly toxic halogenated flame retardants. EPS and XPS foam insulation is rapidly moving away from toxic HBCD to a polymeric flame retardant, which the U.S. EPA says is less likely to migrate out of products during use. In addition, this year saw more halogen-free polyisocyanurate insulation on the market.
PFAS-free carpets: At least three major carpet fiber companies are no longer using poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their stain repellant treatments. These particular bad actor chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative toxicants whose production and use has contaminated water and can also expose occupants during use, particularly children crawling on floors. As reported in our Eliminating Toxics in Carpet report, Interface signaled the future when it stopped using PFAS-based treatments on its face fibers several years ago. This October, The Home Depot, as part of a groundbreaking new chemicals strategy, announced that their carpets are free of two particular PFAS chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) - though other chemicals within this class are still allowed. To cap off the year, on December 11, Tarkett announced that its carpet is no longer treated with fluorinated stain repellents. While more transparency is needed on the replacement chemicals used, these changes appear to represent important hazard reductions.
Fly ash-free carpets: Fly ash, generated at coal-fired power plants, has been used for years as a filler in the backing of carpet to contribute pre-consumer recycled content. Toxic heavy metals including mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium come along for the ride, into new carpet and into our homes. Customers have been requesting fly ash-free carpet for several years, which some companies have offered upon special request. The largest U.S. carpet manufacturer, Shaw, has stopped using fly ash as a filler in their product line. The Home Depot took a big step in pushing the industry further in this direction by eliminating fly ash from their wall to wall carpet offerings this fall.
Home Depot bans dozens of toxic chemicals in building products: The Home Depot announced a new strategy to eliminate toxic chemicals from several high-volume product lines, including carpet, residential fiberglass batt insulation, and acrylic latex paint. Phaseouts other than those mentioned above include organotins in carpet, alkylphenol ethoxylates in paint, and triclosan in both. Triclosan is a toxic biocide that manufacturers sometimes imply, deceptively, provides health benefits to consumers, as HBN and Perkins+Will explained in the report on antimicrobials released in March. The Home Depot’s actions are strong steps towards health equity in building products. It pushes the entire industry toward a future when "healthy products" are not sold for a premium or as specialty items, and any product on the shelf meets the reasonable consumer expectation that it is healthy for people and our planet.
These efforts grow from an understanding not only of the potential health hazards these substances deliver to building occupants, but of their impacts upstream and downstream, from manufacturing to installation to removal, disposal, or recycling into new products. As seen in our ongoing Optimizing Recycling series (carpet and asphalt being our latest reports), there’s an increased awareness that products with less toxic content are more recyclable and foster a more circular economy. There’s also growing acknowledgment of impacts on workers, such as spray foam insulation installers and firefighters, and on people living alongside the chemical industry, surrounded by toxic air and floodwaters.
Opportunities abound. Most high impact toxic substances in building products have market-ready substitutions. All that’s left to do is for consumers to demand them. Others require innovation and collaboration between green chemists and product designers.
The transformation underway in the building product industry is the inevitable outcome of an informed market, motivated to reduce the use of and exposure to hazardous substances. The past year has shown that, together, we can systematically eliminate toxic substances from the built environment. Here’s to continued market transformation in 2018!
This article was co-authored by Rebecca Stamm, researcher with the Healthy Building Network. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @HBNRebecca.