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The Nutritional Life of Buildings

What was once proprietary information about the environmental and health impacts of products is now seeing the light of day.

By Alex Wilson
January 2012

When you buy a box of Cheerios at the supermarket, you know exactly what's in it: each ingredient; the number of calories in a serving; grams of sugar, fat, and protein; milligrams of sodium; and so forth. You also get some sense of what this means for your health—from those "percent daily values" in the nutrition facts box.

Illustration by Harry Campbell
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Why isn't this sort of information available for the products going into our buildings? We live or work with those building products for years or decades, spending an average of 90 percent of our time indoors. We're not literally eating our building materials, of course, but we would like to know if there's something in the paint, carpeting, or composite countertop that might harm us or the environment. Why can't we get that information?

We can, and we should. The move toward transparency is all about making this information readily available, to help everyone in the industry make more informed choices.

A growing piece of the movement toward "nutrition labels" for building products are environmental product declarations (EPDs), which are designed to inform us about the life-cycle environmental characteristics of products. Progressive manufacturers are beginning to produce EPDs for their products, providing standardized environmental information that includes product description, manufacturing data, and performance characteristics at different stages of the life cycle. Backed by life-cycle assessment—a specific methodology that helps to quantify the impacts of products from extraction of raw materials through end of life—the point of the EPD is to provide a summary of the environmental characteristics of the product in a way that is accessible, consistent, and comparable.

The new kid on the block is the health product declaration (HPD), which addresses not just what's in a product, but also what that means for human health. HPDs were introduced by the Healthy Building Network and by my company, BuildingGreen, at Greenbuild Toronto in 2011. Like EPDs, the concept is to make information accessible, consistent, and comparable—the difference is that HPDs delve deeper into the health impacts of materials, while EPDs are broader, addressing the life-cycle environmental impacts.

An obstacle to achieving transparency with building products is concern from manufacturers about revealing proprietary formulations—that secret sauce that helps one product perform better or realize market advantages over others. Manufacturers are justifiably leery about sharing secret ingredients publicly. This has been one of the major challenges faced by the Healthy Building Network as it has worked to populate its Pharos database. There is also justifiable concern that a manufacturer could be penalized in the market by disclosing ingredients that sound harmful—a competitor's product may have those same ingredients, but not admit it.

But giving up some of that secrecy and risking new competition may be a reasonable tradeoff for manufacturers wanting to attract specifiers and users who are concerned about the health of building occupants and the environment. If manufacturers are more forthcoming about product constituents, buyers may trust them more, boosting sales enough to compensate for risks. A new LEED pilot credit and changes signaled in public drafts of LEED 2012 could create a strong incentive for companies to do that.

The architecture firm Perkins+Will has shown how such information on product constituents can be used by the design community in a prototype product label that it created for Construction Specialties, Inc. P+W was commissioned to do that work based on its leadership in pushing for transparency and avoiding hazardous ingredients. The company has developed three lists of hazardous substances and published them on its website at http://transparency.perkinswill.com : the Precautionary List, Asthma Triggers and Asthmagens, and Flame Retardants.

How transparent is transparent enough? Does a manufacturer need to list every single ingredient, even those that represent just a tiny fraction of the product? I'm not sure, but I've been reading material safety data sheets (MSDS) long enough to know that leaving off ingredients that are present at very small concentrations (the threshold for most constituents is 1 percent) often leaves an MSDS almost worthless when that information is being used to gauge potential risks. This is because some chemicals—including endocrine disruptors (chemicals that mimic natural hormones and may interfere with endocrine functions)—can have a significant effect at concentrations far lower than the reporting thresholds for an MSDS.

Ultimately, it would be great to see EPDs and HPDs come together, and become further refined, so that there really is a label on every building product that can show us at a glance the health and environmental consequences of choosing one product over another. We're not there yet, but such a convergence seems a worthwhile goal.

If we in the green building community are going to make informed decisions as we specify building products, we need more complete, accurate, and comparable information about what's in those products and what the health and environmental implications are. Demanding this information from manufacturers and then using it in our product specification and purchasing decisions will not only result in safer, better buildings, but will also drive innovation and improvement in building product manufacturing.

Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News.

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