How Do We Know? A Peek Inside HBN’s Research Process

HBN | June 2020 | Newsletter

How does HBN know that alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are starting to be phased out of acrylic paints, or that one brominated flame retardant in polystyrene insulation is being replaced by another? How can we be confident in our claims that antimicrobials are sometimes unnecessarily added to building products? Where do we get our intel? How do we sort through it all to identify priorities and opportunities for safer material use?  

For 20 years, HBN has been a source of well-researched and up-to-date information. One way we do this is through systematic product type research that generates profiles for Common Products, such as ceiling tiles, masonry, pipes and over 150 other building products.  

Common Product profiles are not specific to any manufacturer, but list the substances that are most commonly present in a given product type as well as their associated human and environmental health hazards. Common Products are the foundation of HBN’s material guidance. Making this research publicly available through our Pharos tool bridges a knowledge gap where transparency in building materials is lacking and enables creative research outside of HBN.  

History of Common Product Research
Common Products were originally developed by HBN in 2015 for the Quartz project. This was a collaboration between HBN, Google, Thinkstep, and Flux to provide transparency of information for 102 building product types in an effort to promote market transformation toward less toxic materials with lower environmental impacts. Following this collaboration, all of the Common Product profiles were moved to Pharos. The profiles in Pharos include all of the original records developed by HBN through the Quartz Project as well as new records added and created by HBN. To date, Pharos houses 155 Common Products, and we continue to add more. Recognizing that product formulations can quickly change, we also continue to update the original records from the Quartz project. A detailed description of our methodology can be found here.

Common Product Profiles: An Essential Element of HBN Research
Common Product profiles drive our guidance, like our HomeFree Hazard Spectra which allows  people to easily identify safer product types in nine different categories. Common Products also help us gauge where and when market transformation is happening, such as the trend away from chemicals of concern in paint and fiberglass insulation. Likewise, Common Product research can reveal when manufacturers begin implementing regrettable substitutes in a product type.  Since we are able to track these trends in industry, Common Product research is also the powerhouse behind our guidance on actionable pathways for market transformation in products involving chemicals that pose serious environmental and/or health hazards (see our Transformation Targets page for more details). 

An added benefit of Common Product research is that it helps us track changes in product transparency. We thoroughly research publicly available documentation like patents, safety data sheets, Health Product Declarations and Declare labels for every Common Product we develop or update. Consequently, we can quickly identify sectors where greater transparency in product content is emerging, or where it is lacking. 

HBN Materials Research Fuels Partner Tools 
In addition to using Common Products to inform our own research, we continue to partner with companies like Google that envision Common Products as a key to market transformation in the building materials industry. 

“HBN’s Common Product research is the foundation of our Healthy Materials Program,” said Sara Cederberg of Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services team. “Access to simple summaries of the chemical content in building materials and their associated hazards enables us to build spaces that benefit our employees and the environment. Since Common Product profiles are available to the public, others in the healthy materials ecosystem can use them as resources to make smart choices around building materials as well.” 

Here are some other creative and powerful ways that some of our other partners use the Common Product research: 

  • Researchers predict exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) throughout a product’s lifecycle
  • Architects identify chemical hazard “hotspots” in buildings via 3D building modeling
  • Project teams generate product specific requirements in specifications
  • Project teams prioritize manufacturer outreach for Living Building Challenge (LBC) certifications
  • Retailers design chemicals management programs
  • Manufacturers identify alternatives to chemicals of concern

We also have partners who want to go beyond the Pharos interface and have more direct access to the underlying data. In such cases, we have been able to offer data downloads and APIs so that Common Product data can be incorporated into other systems. 

Now YOU can know better too!
If you are an architect or designer, use our HomeFree guidance to identify and specify the safest building products for your project. If you are a manufacturer trying to stay ahead of the curve, see our Transformation Targets for a list of the most impactful and avoidable product category and chemical combinations. If you are a researcher or data junkie and want to view the data behind our recommendations, check out our Pharos tool. 

We pride ourselves in being a source grounded in sound science that you can trust. We look forward to more successful market transformation stories. Common Product research helps us tell these stories. In the past year, we have updated a number of our existing Common Products for insulation, flooring, adhesives, drywall and paint.  We’ve also added new Common Products to each of those categories, such as wood fiberboard insulation, multilayer resilient (WPC) flooring, mineral silicate paint, peel and stick adhesives and mold- and moisture-resistant drywall. We have many more in the pipeline, including numerous Common Products related to artificial turf, recycled content, and water pipes. Check out all of our Common Products here. If there is a product that you would like to see in Pharos let us know!