Current climate action plans are bold, they are necessary, they feel impossible, and they are coming into the consciousness of all concerned (and unconcerned), decades after the early reports should have been taken seriously. At this point, there is an urgency because people are experiencing the effects of a warming planet (storms, fires, rising tides, health impacts from warmer temperatures, etc.).
Climate plans have focused on strategies related to renewable and clean energy, greater efficiency, emissions reduction, etc., especially as it relates to building operations and transportation. However, that is only one side of the (enormous) coin, and it misses key opportunities on the opposite side. It is akin to making the decision to improve your health by incorporating an exercise plan, but continuing a diet of nutritionally deficient and unhealthy foods. You will only get so far, and your dedication to exercise will be undercut by your fast food burgers and supersized fries.
The other side of the coin? If building and transportation energy and emissions reduction is “heads,” what could be so immense that it fills the flipside? The "tails" of that coin is the vast quantities of products being produced, its emissions and pollution, and the need for toxic chemical mitigation. The missing piece in effective climate mitigation and improved global health is a toxic-free, recyclable product cycle (low-waste and closed-loop). Healthy Building Network has been a leading voice in better chemistry and safer products for two decades and has research, tools, and solutions for you and your teams.
This month’s newsletter explores key climate change topics and highlights the links between chemical and material choices and the climate.
1. This article, The Best Climate Action Plans Include This..., makes the link between emissions and energy reductions to circular economy strategies, inclusive of smart design and safe material choices.
2. Embodied Carbon and Climate Justice: Confluence or Conflict? Explains what these terms mean and how to balance a product’s carbon and toxic footprints.
3. Five Reasons Why Climate Change and Toxic Chemicals are Connected explains how climate change can amplify the effect of toxics in our products.
4. The last article, NRDC Prioritizes Safer Products in Energy Efficiency Programs, highlights practical examples of integrating healthier materials into energy efficiency upgrades in affordable housing.
The Link Between Emissions, Circular Economy and Chemicals
Climate plans must include Circular Economy strategies, and a circular economy is possible only if safe chemistries are used as inputs to products.1 The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) September 2019 report: Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change makes the case that we must address the product cycle as a core part of climate action plans.2 According to the report, “to date, efforts to tackle the [climate] crisis have focused on a transition to renewable energy, complemented by energy efficiency. Though crucial and wholly consistent with a circular economy, these measures can only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from producing the cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day.”
There is more than just emissions that makes the product cycle a critical component of an effective climate strategy. At Healthy Building Network, our research shows that there is a related and similar urgency in addressing severe health crises, impacting marginalized communities the hardest, but also now affecting a larger population of people. Our plans—starting with transparency (requesting manufacturers provide the public with a complete list of product ingredients); full testing of all chemicals for human and environmental health impacts; and innovation to new, “green” (safer) chemicals—are bold, necessary and they also feel impossible.
The EMF Completing the Picture report makes the case that we must fundamentally change how our products are made. A key recommendation in reducing emissions is to “design out waste and pollution.” To be even more precise, designing the toxics out of our products is key to eliminating waste and creating the safe and circular economy that is the cornerstone of any climate solution, an inextricable element in human and environmental health.
A companion report by Google, in partnership with EMF, The Role of Safe Chemistry and Healthy Materials in Unlocking the Circular Economy, emphasizes that toxic chemical mitigation is a precursor to a circular economy. It suggests that “the short- and long-term impacts of these new chemical substances has lagged behind the drive to create new molecules and materials. We can see the consequences around us, including ‘sick building syndrome,’ flame retardants accumulating in human breast milk and being passed along to newborns, or entire city populations toxified from local environmental exposures and contaminated drinking water.” The authors of the report put out a challenge to the world’s chemists and material scientists to not only develop molecules and materials that achieve a performance or aesthetic outcome, but also to ensure that these substances are safe for people and the environment, can be cycled and used to create future products, and retain economic value throughout its lifecycle. Safer chemistry is the key to unlock a circular economy.
The health impacts related to our petrochemical and hazardous chemical-dependent product economy are real, but are often unseen or unrecognized. Globally declining sperm counts and reproductive disorders are linked to chemicals in our plastics,3 and a growing library of peer-reviewed studies link today’s epidemic health issues—cancer, diabetes, obesity, asthma and autism—to endocrine-disrupting and neurotoxic chemicals.4 These data often take a back seat to the climate crisis in our headlines, but they too are growing worse and in need of bold action.
“Better Living Through Chemistry” vs Better Chemistry for Healthier Living
DuPont (and other chemical companies) did not get it right with the blanket phrase, “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Has there been some great progress and benefits from innovative products that use new chemistries and materials?—yes, of course. That said, a significant lack of understanding of the toxicological effects on humans and the environment have come at great cost. We are finding that the tradeoffs are severe—though today, like the early science on climate change, most people are unaware of this silent epidemic, and tend to accept the rise in cancer, autism, fertility problems, and developmental issues in children, as only an unfortunate part of life—they or their loved ones just pulled a short straw, bad luck.
In 1970, the U.S. produced 50 million tons of synthetic chemicals.5 In 1995, the number tripled to 150 million tons, and today, that number continues to increase.6 Very few of the tens of thousands of chemicals in the marketplace are fully tested for health hazards, and details on human exposure to these chemicals is limited.7 We are exposed to these chemicals every day, in varying quantities and combinations. Over a lifetime, the small exposures add up. Science-based predictions of health outcomes from long-term exposure continue to emerge,8 but add on the component of a warming climate and a new layer of concern is revealing itself.9
The best climate plans are holistic. They recognize and include strategies from both the clean and renewable energy effort and safe and circular product cycle. The threats and impacts of climate change and toxic chemicals are synergistic, as are the solutions. They must be tethered in order to be effective. In fact, ignoring the chemical/material side of the coin will undermine progress on climate and energy solutions.
We Know Better, and We Can Do Better
As energy efficiency and renewable energy gains reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation and building operations sectors, addressing product production assumes an even greater importance. Successfully addressing climate change requires a revolutionary change in how we design and manufacture materials, towards a circular, closed-loop economy. But materials cannot flow effectively in a closed-loop if they are contaminated with toxic chemicals. Safe first, and then circular is possible.
For two decades, Healthy Building Network has developed research and tools to help the industry move towards safer chemistry and products. The urgency to mitigate toxics must be on par with the urgency for clean and renewable energy - they are two sides of the same coin. Failing to recognize this, and create holistic, compatible solutions, will undermine our goals to manage climate change and improve global health.
 “What Is a Circular Economy? | Ellen MacArthur Foundation,” accessed November 25, 2019, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept.
 “Circular Economy Reports & Publications From The Ellen MacArthur Foundation,” accessed November 25, 2019, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications.
 Teresa Carr, “Sperm Counts Are on the Decline – Could Plastics Be to Blame?,” The Guardian, May 24, 2019, sec. US news, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/24/toxic-america-sperm-counts-plastics-research.
 Naoko OHTANI et al., “Adverse Effects of Maternal Exposure to Bisphenol F on the Anxiety- and Depression-like Behavior of Offspring,” The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 79, no. 2 (February 2017): 432–39, https://doi.org/10.1292/jvms.16-0502.
 Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
 Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
 Pamela D. Noyes and Sean C. Lema, “Forecasting the Impacts of Chemical Pollution and Climate Change Interactions on the Health of Wildlife,” Current Zoology 61, no. 4 (August 1, 2015): 669–89, https://doi.org/10.1093/czoolo/61.4.669.
 Jonathan Watts, “Surge in Chemical Use ‘a Threat to Health and Environment,’” The Guardian, March 12, 2019, sec. Environment, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/12/surge-in-chemical-use-a-threat-to-health-and-environment.
 Noyes and Lema.