If you’re like many of us, 2020 may have felt like one of the longest years ever. While the broad effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are far from over, the new year allows us a chance to reflect on what’s ahead and focus on how we can Know Better and Do Better in 2021. A sustainable path to health has many components, and HBN’s research and materials guidance focus on improving human and environmental health by eliminating exposures to toxic chemicals.
If you’re looking for ways to incorporate healthy materials into your resolutions for this year, consider these five resolutions based on HBN’s research advancements over the past year.
Specify paint free of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs)
APEs are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have historically been used as a surfactant in paints1. Thankfully, our recent research shows that many paint manufacturers are now offering paints at all price points that are low-VOC and free of APEs. HBN’s HomeFree program offers many helpful resources, including drop-in paint specifications organized according to MasterFormat standard divisions that include example products meeting those specifications. We also published a list of healthier paints, making it easy to choose a safer product.
Avoid building products labeled as “antimicrobial”
As the global threat of COVID-19 has risen, so has the level of marketing messages containing health claims around antimicrobials added to myriad products. However, a 2017 HBN white paper reported that building products containing antimicrobial additives and marketed as “sanitizing” or “antibacterial”, for example, do not contribute to healthier populations. In fact, these products may have unintended negative effects2. It’s important to remember that antimicrobials are pesticides, which require careful, limited use. In light of the pandemic we took another look at our findings, and the conclusions remain the same as they did in 2017. We continue to recommend avoiding building products labeled as “antimicrobial” or “containing antimicrobials” or any other similar language. For useful information including resources for safe cleaning and disinfecting practices, visit our COVID-19 resources page.
Specify drywall made with natural gypsum
In 2020, we released new research and a new Hazard Spectrum for drywall, favoring natural gypsum as the preferred material source. Synthetic gypsum is made from treated waste generated at coal-fired power plants and can introduce mercury into the environment during the drywall manufacturing process, impacting the surrounding communities. Mercury has potent developmental and neurotoxic effects, can persist in the environment, and accumulates in human bodies3. While natural gypsum has impacts associated with mining, drywall manufacturing facilities using natural gypsum release far lower mercury emissions than facilities using synthetic gypsum. Also, since synthetic gypsum is classified as “pre-consumer recycled content,” look for products with lower levels of pre-consumer recycled content to avoid products made with synthetic gypsum.
Prefer natural turf over synthetic turf for athletic fields
We also released new research in 2020 surrounding artificial turf. While synthetic turf may appear to provide economical and ecological advantages such as a lack of need for watering, fertilizing, and pesticide use, a deeper look into the human and environmental impacts of synthetic turf and its related infills shows a more complicated picture. Athletic fields made from synthetic turf require infill to keep the grass blades upright and provide shock absorption, and these infills often contain hazardous chemicals. In addition, the turf fibers and backing material have also been shown to contain lead, phthalates, and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) - dubbed “forever chemicals” because of their persistence. Recycling options for synthetic turf are limited to nonexistent. The healthiest option we identified is natural turf grass that is chosen to be appropriate for a location’s soil and climate conditions, aerated regularly, and managed free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Demand Transparency - ask manufacturers to provide product information and purchase products with fully disclosed ingredients when possible.
Sign the materials pledge.
We believe you have a right to know what’s in the materials in your buildings. And that all of those responsible for the design, construction, and operation of buildings have a right to know – and a responsibility to avoid – known and potential hazards to building occupants, workers, and fenceline communities. Only through full public disclosure and assessment of contents and hazards can we identify and solve the human and environmental health problems created by hazardous substances in buildings, on worksites, and in communities.
Our research has shown that product transparency is increasing, but it will require sustained pressure from buyers, builders, and consumers to drive change across the market. In the building industry, the two most common transparency tools are Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Declare labels. You can do your part to increase transparency by asking for and preferring products that have a public HPDs that have been third-party verified, all contents characterized, screened, and identified to 100 ppm. It is particularly impactful to ask for HPDs from industries that HBN’s research has shown have not historically participated in materials disclosure, such as:
- Sealants and sealers
- Ceramic tile accessories (including grout and mortar)
You can also take this resolution a step further and join the 100+ architecture and design firms that have publicly pledged to prefer products with material disclosure information by becoming a Materials Pledge Signatory.
These five resolutions are only the beginning of the steps you can take toward healthier and safer materials and products. Browse our Hazard Spectra for more building product recommendations, and learn more about our recent research on our blog and website. Here’s to a happy and healthy new year!
 Nonylphenol ethoxylates and their degradation products, nonylphenols, are on the EU Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern due to endocrine disrupting properties (https://echa.europa.eu/candidate-list-table). Nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates and their degradation products, nonylphenols and octylphenols, are on the ChemSec SIN List for endocrine disruption (https://sinlist.chemsec.org/) and on The Endocrine Disruption Exchange for potential endocrine disruption (https://endocrinedisruption.org/interactive-tools/tedx-list-of-potential-endocrine-disruptors/search-the-tedx-list).
 Healthy Environments: Understanding Antimicrobial Ingredients in Building Materials
 Selecting the Wrong Drywall Could Introduce Mercury into the Environment