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A Peek Inside Google's Healthy Materials Program

Google is way out front of other organizations—both public and private—when it comes to screening materials for hazardous ingredients in its workplaces.

By Nadav Malin

This article originally appeared on BuildingGreen.com.

June 26, 2012
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This indoor space at Google has sustainably forested wood floors, soy-based furniture, and ample daylighting.
Courtesy Christophe Wu/Google
This indoor space at Google has sustainably forested wood floors, soy-based furniture, and ample daylighting.
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Transparency: Manufacturers don’t always know about everything that goes into their products, and when they do, they often consider that information proprietary. Some prefer to provide the information privately to Google rather than disclose their ingredients publicly. To be fair, Google has many trade secrets of its own, something that Less hears about a lot from suppliers.

Avoiding formaldehyde: The industry has been trained by LEED to focus on added urea-formaldehyde (UF), but the LBC red list calls out all formaldehyde. That affects medium-density fiberboard (MDF), laminates, doors, and many other components. “There are alternatives, but they are much more expensive,” notes Anthony Ravitz, green team lead for Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services group. That means Google can use them for specialty items like countertops but not for more ubiquitous work surfaces and doors.

Furniture is a challenging category, mostly because there are so many components. Again, manufacturers may not know all the ingredients in their products, and even if they do, they may not have viable alternatives. PVC and bisphenol-A are common on parts and pieces of desks and chairs. Formaldehyde is common in work surfaces—in the laminates, adhesives, and substrates. And upholstered furniture has flame retardants, which California requires for fire safety (at least by some interpretations).

Duct liner: “We were surprised to discover a lot of chemicals of concern,” says Less, “which is troubling because the air we breathe goes through that material.” Formaldehyde, flame retardants, and heavy metals are among the substances that turned up in their review of product formulations.

Fabric window shades: Almost all have flame retardants, but fabrics on workstations can be specified without flame retardants or stain-resistant coatings as long as the manufacturer applies those coatings after weaving the fabric rather than before.

Successes

Market transformation is happening. Google and its project teams are building awareness and educating the market to push for greater transparency and cooperation. In the carpet sector, companies that started out being very uncomfortable with transparency have now become advocates for it. Manufacturers in that industry and many others have demonstrated further leadership through participating in the Health Product Declaration, the industry’s first common reporting standard for transparency around the health impacts of building materials. A list of manufacturers participating in the Health Product Declaration pilot program is on the website.

Lessons learned

Relationships with salespeople are key. They have advocated within their own companies for these issues. They are on the front lines.

Even without transparency, rigorous screening can make a difference. “When we visited their factories, we discovered that furniture manufacturers that have been working with the Cradle-to-Cradle program have made a lot of progress,” says Ravitz. Now that they have cleaner products, it would seem that more disclosure would only benefit them, Ravitz suggests.

Copyright 2012 by BuildingGreen Inc.

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