Quantifying the Impact of Product Choices

HBN | July 2019 | Newsletter

For years, Healthy Building Network has been thinking about and consulting with our partners about how to describe the impact of choosing healthier building products. Here’s why this is a complex and challenging issue for the industry: 

  • Incomplete knowledge of what many building products are made of 
  • Limited understanding of the health hazards of the thousands of chemicals in commerce today 
  • Trade-offs when making material choices 

These reasons drive the need for full transparency of chemical contents and full assessment of chemical hazards. This can ultimately lead to optimizing products in order to avoid hazardous chemicals.

Toxic chemicals have a huge and complex impact on the health and well-being of people and the environment. Those impacts are spread throughout a product’s life cycle. For example, fenceline communities can be exposed during the manufacturing of products in adjacent facilities, workers can be exposed on the job during the manufacturing and installation processes, and building occupants can be exposed during the product’s use stage. Some individuals suffer multiple exposures because they are affected in all of those instances.  

In addition, toxic chemicals can be released when materials are disposed of or recycled. When they incorporate recycled content into new products, manufacturers can include legacy toxicants, inhibiting the circular economy and exposing individuals to hazardous chemicals—even those that have been phased out as intentional content in products. 

We know intrinsically that hazardous chemicals have the potential to do harm and that they commonly do so. For champions of this cause, that understanding of the precautionary principle is enough. Others still need to be convinced and often want to quantify the impact of a healthy materials program. How can healthy building champions start to talk about and quantify the impacts of material choices?

Infographic from NYU School of Medicine  
Infographic from NYU School of Medicine2

Broad Impacts of Toxic Chemicals
One way researchers quantify the impact of chemicals is to consider the broad economic impacts of chemical exposures. Evidence increasingly shows that toxic chemical exposures may be costing the USA billions of dollars and millions of IQ points. One recent study estimates that certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals cost the United States $340 billion each year. This is a staggerring 2.3% of the US gross domestic product.1 And that is for only a subset of the hazardous chemicals that surround us every day. These numbers provide important context for the larger discussion of toxic chemical use, but cannot easily be tied to daily decisions about specific materials.

Other ways researchers think about impact include exposure studies. For example, HBN’s post last month on chemicals and the immune system referenced the fact that PFAS chemicals are found in the blood of almost all Americans. We can also look at factory emissions that can affect air or water quality in surrounding communities. This article plots the decrease in formaldehyde emissions from residential fiberglass insulation manufacturing facilities as the industry moved to alternative binders. Health impacts on installers also cannot be overlooked. If you take a moment to read our report on insulation and air sealing materials, you will learn about a spray foam worker who developed occupational asthma and was forced to leave his job.  

These meaningful stories contribute to our understanding of the broad impacts of chemicals, but some folks still want to be able to quantify impact more specifically. Tying decisions about specific materials to health outcomes is a very complex proposition. However, when taking a hazard avoidance approach, one way to start to quantify the impact of material choices is to consider the amount of specific high priority chemicals that can be avoided, for example using HBN’s Transformation Targets

Market Scale Impacts
Even before HBN gave our priorities the name Transformation Targets, we were targeting orthophthalates in vinyl flooring as a key chemical + product category combination to be avoided. Orthophthalates can be released from products and deposited in dust which can be inhaled or ingested by residents—particularly young children who crawl on floors and often place their hands in their mouths3. In last month’s newsletter, HBN, along with our partners, announced the significant impact made by our combined campaign to remove orthophthalates from vinyl flooring—an estimated tens of millions of pounds of orthophthalates avoided annually through the elimination of these toxic chemicals from the vinyl flooring sold by several large retailers. This particular case is a great example, since replacement chemicals are believed to have relatively lower associated hazards (although more data is still needed for some). Through HBN’s Transformation Targets, we can all work together to continue to affect this scale of change in the marketplace and keep millions more tons of hazardous chemicals out of buildings.

Transformation Target Impacts on the Project Scale
The “tens of millions of pounds” figure above is certainly compelling, and everyone pushing for these types of products helped effect this broader change. But what about the impact of this sort of change on the scale of a single building? One way to start to quantify this level of impact is to use the HBN Common Product profiles to determine the typical percentages of target chemicals within a product type and to quantify the amount you can avoid for a particular project. Context is key for this sort of calculation—a pound of one chemical may not have the same level of impact as a pound of another chemical. But, given the right context, this sort of calculation may prove useful as part of a larger story. The following examples  provide context for the story of different impacts of different chemicals. 

  • accurate-boy-build-small.pngSmall decisions, big impacts: While many manufacturers and retailers have phased out hazardous orthophthalate plasticizers, some vinyl flooring may still contain them. If we consider an example affordable housing project, avoiding orthophthalates in flooring can keep dozens of pounds of these hazardous chemicals out of a single unit (about the equivalent of 10 gallons of milk).4 For a whole building, this equates to several tons of orthophthalates that can be avoided.5 It is easy to see how this impact quickly magnifies in the context of a broader market shift.
  • Little things matter: Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) in paints are a current Transformation Target. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals make up less than one percent of a typical paint. In this case, by making the choice to avoid APEs, a couple of pounds of these hazardous chemicals are kept out of a single unit (about the equivalent of a quart of milk). This translates to a couple of hundred pounds kept out of an entire building.6 This quantity may seem small compared to the tons avoided in the phthalate example above, but little things matter. Small exposures to chemicals can have big impacts, particularly for developing children.7 And, since our environments can contain many hazardous chemicals, and we aren’t exposed to just a single chemical at a time, these exposures stack up in our bodies.8 
  • Reducing exposure everywhere: Choosing products without hazardous target chemicals keeps them out of buildings, but can also reduce exposures as these products are manufactured, installed, and disposed of or recycled. Some chemicals may have impacts that occur primarily outside of the residence where they are installed, but these impacts can still be significant. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), for example, a primary component of vinyl flooring, requires toxic processes for its production and can generate toxic pollution when it is disposed of. Manufacturing of the PVC needed to create the vinyl flooring for one building as described above can release dozens of pounds of hazardous chlorinated emissions, impacting air quality in surrounding communities.9 These fenceline communities are often low-income, and suffer from disproportionate exposure in their homes, through their work, and from local air pollution. If choosing non-vinyl flooring for a single building can help reduce potential exposure to hazardous chlorinated emissions in these fenceline communities, imagine the potential impacts of avoiding vinyl on a larger scale!

In addition to information about target chemicals to avoid, HBN’s Transformation Targets framework provides recommendations of alternative types of materials that are typically better from a health hazard perspective and includes steps to work toward the goal of full transparency of product content and full assessment of chemical hazards. This framework can help ensure that the impacts of avoiding Transformation Targets are positive overall and that regrettable substitutions are avoided.

Excerpt from HomeFree Flooring Hazard Spectrum

Interested in Understanding Your Impact? Here Are Some Ways to Get Started  While there are lots of ways to consider the impact of your choice of materials, many are not easily quantifiable. Some ideas for project teams looking to quantify the impact of a healthier material program include:

  • tracking the number of Transformation Targets avoided, 
  • tracking the number of products used that are in the highest ranked (green or yellow) categories on the HomeFree hazard spectra,
  • tracking the ”steps” taken up the hazard spectra from your own standard practice to higher ranked materials, and
  • tracking the number of products used on a project that have transparency documents.


Contact HBN’s Research Team for more information about how we can help you select safer materials and products, and communicate your project’s story of impact: info@healthybuilding.net.

Each decision you make about the materials you use, each step toward using healthier products, can have big impacts within a housing unit, a building, and in the broader environment. Collectively, these individual decisions also influence manufacturers to provide better, more transparent products for us all. Ultimately, this can reduce the hazardous chemicals not just in our buildings but also in our bodies. 


[1] Attina, Teresa M, Russ Hauser, Sheela Sathyanaraya, Patricia A Hunt, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, John Peterson Myers, Joseph DiGangi, R Thomas Zoeller, and Leonardo Trasande. “Exposure to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in the USA: A Population-Based Disease Burden and Cost Analysis.” The Lancet 4, no. 12 (December 1, 2016): 996–1003. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-8587(16)30275-3.

[2]  “Disease Burden & Costs Due to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals.” NYU Langone Health, July 12, 2019. https://med.nyu.edu/departments-institutes/pediatrics/divisions/environmental-pediatrics/research/policy-initiatives/disease-burden-costs-endocrine-disrupting-chemicals.

[3]  Bi, Chenyang, Juan P. Maestre, LiG Hongwan, GeR Zhang, Raheleh Givehchi, Alireza Mahdavi, Kerry A. Kinney, Jeffery Siegel, Sharon D. Horner, and Ying Xu. “Phthalates and Organophosphates in Settled Dust and HVAC Filter Dust of U.S. Low-Income Homes: Association with Season, Building Characteristics, and Childhood Asthma.” Environment International 121 (December 2018): 916–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2018.09.013.; Mitro, Susanna D., Robin E. Dodson, Veena Singla, Gary Adamkiewicz, Angelo F. Elmi, Monica K. Tilly, and Ami R. Zota. “Consumer Product Chemicals in Indoor Dust: A Quantitative Meta-Analysis of U.S. Studies.” Environmental Science & Technology 50, no. 19 (October 4, 2016): 10661–72. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.6b02023.

[4] According to the USDA, milk typically weighs about 8.6 pounds per gallon. See: “Weights, Measures, and Conversion Factors for Agricultural Commodities and Their Products.” United States Department of Agriculture, June 1992. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/41880/33132_ah697_002.pdf?v=0.

[5] HBN used the Common Products for Luxury Vinyl Tile and Vinyl Sheet to estimate the amount of plasticizer. We assumed a 100 unit building of 1000 square foot two-bedroom apartments with vinyl flooring throughout the units.

[6] HBN used the Common Product profiles for Eggshell and Flat Paint to estimate the amount of surfactant and assumed a 100 unit building of 1000 square foot two-bedroom apartments.

[7] Vandenberg, Laura N., Theo Colborn, Tyrone B. Hayes, Jerrold J. Heindel, David R. Jacobs, Duk-Hee Lee, Toshi Shioda, et al. “Hormones and Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Low-Dose Effects and Nonmonotonic Dose Responses.” Endocrine Reviews 33, no. 3 (June 1, 2012): 378–455. https://doi.org/10.1210/er.2011-1050.

[8] Impacts can be additive, where health impacts are equal to the sum of the effect of each chemical alone. They can also be synergistic, where the resulting health impacts are greater than the sum of the individual chemicals’ expected impacts.

[9] HBN used the Common Products for Luxury Vinyl Tile and Vinyl Sheet to estimate the amount of PVC. We assumed a 100 unit building of 1000 square foot two-bedroom apartments with vinyl flooring throughout the units. Emissions are based on the Calvert City, KY Westlake plant examined in HBN’s Chlorine and Building Materials Project. According to EPA’s EJScreen tool, the census blockgroup where this facility is located is primarily low income, with 62% of the population considered low income (putting this census block group in the 88th percentile nationwide in terms of low income population). EJScreen, EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (Version 2018). Accessed March 18, 2019. https://ejscreen.epa.gov/mapper/