Feature Article

Why Chemical Transparency Matters

You can’t manage what you don’t measure—especially if you don’t know it exists.

As loyal shoppers at our local food co-op, we’ve gotten used to personal care products with full ingredient disclosure. A Tom’s of Maine toothpaste tube lists “every ingredient, its purpose, and its source.” If you’re not satisfied with that, you can go online and see a lengthy description of each substance, including the company’s take on any hazards associated with the chemical as well as an explanation of why the company still thinks it’s okay to use.

When you buy conventional personal care products—most of which, unlike food, don’t have to provide an ingredient list—you could spend hours online trying to puzzle out why the newest bottle of your usual shampoo is suddenly making you wheeze, or what kind of plastic they use to make those freaky blue ibuprofen pods.

This is why we both tend to stick with “natural” products—not necessarily because we think they’re more wholesome (which is debatable) but rather because manufacturers freely tell us what’s in them. That builds trust. It also means that if something goes awry, we can probably track down which ingredient might be causing the problem.

From toothpaste to … insulation?

In the last few years, green building professionals have been looking for the same kind of ingredient lists and explanations for building materials that Tom’s of Maine puts on its toothpaste tubes—often in the form of a Health Product Declaration (HPD).

Many manufacturers and trade groups have resisted: they suggest design professionals should stick with designing buildings and let suppliers and manufacturers manage the chemical side of things. And since we don’t eat building products or even brush our teeth with them, it’s worth asking why we should want to know what’s in there.

There are three good reasons.

1. There may be too many chemical cooks

The HPD gives us a chemical inventory of a building product and characterizes the level of concern about each ingredient.

Although other data reporting formats may allude to human health effects, they fall short. Reference to toxicity in environmental product declarations (EPDs), for example, looks at health in a fairly indirect way. It focuses on public health impacts from manufacturing and not on toxic substances in the materials themselves. The material data safety sheet (MSDS) was created to warn first responders about what they might be dealing with in case of a chemical spill or other crisis.

But we are becoming more aware of our sensitivities to long-term, low-level chemical exposures. One recent study noted that 30 different chemicals present in common household dust all could be contributing to obesity. None on its own was present in significant quantities, but researchers think that in combination, they could be asserting a surprisingly strong effect. Another recent study looked at how multiple chemicals, each in small quantities on its own, could be combining into a carcinogenic “soup.”

HPDs can help address these effects by bringing to light small chemical quantities and giving us more data to analyze for patterns.

2. Transparency is a means to an end

Suppose you had to choose between a world in which all products are disclosed and one in which all products are optimized for minimal health impact and maximum performance. You would choose optimization, right?

You wouldn’t know it from transparency opponents, but that’s not our choice to make. We need transparency to get to optimization, and there will never be a land of unicorns and rainbows where everything is optimized.

Look at the U.S. Green Building Council’s experience in developing LEED v4. USGBC signaled clearly in early development of the system that it wanted to encourage avoidance of chemicals of concern. It also wants to move its materials and resources credits toward life-cycle assessment and away from single-issue credits.

With both issues, though, it found out that it could only make token rules because, fundamentally, the building industry lacks data. We need massive generation of disclosure data to tell us exactly what we’re dealing with—before we can really start thinking about optimization.

We commend companies that are ahead of the curve and already optimizing. But for this to scale across the rest of the industry and start showing widespread results in our buildings, we need more data.

3. Disclosure changes products

With the transparency movement several years old, we’re hearing lots of stories from manufacturers who, simply by looking to find out what’s in their products and characterize the hazard levels of any chemicals, have found that asking questions leads to change.

For architects who have asked for products with HPDs, having those conversations with manufacturers is a clear way of communicating an interest in health without boxing those companies into solutions that aren’t a good fit.

We’d like to see more companies optimize formally, but the on-the-fly optimization that happens through asking questions is more accessible as an everyday practice.

Presenting the HPD issue

In this special issue, we are providing a series of shorter articles focusing on a single topic: chemical transparency, specifically HPDs.

We’re including expert voices from around the industry in the op-ed section as well as in our in-depth analysis of a variety of topics, which include a look at how HPDs fit into the market, a case study of how one furniture manufacturer is leading the way on optimization, and a special report on the legal risks associated with knowing and disclosing hazard data.

Although these issues are complex, we hope this special issue contributes to an ongoing dialogue about the hazardous substances in our building products—and how we can find alternatives that don’t compromise our other sustainability goals.

Published November 2, 2015

Roberts, T., & Melton, P. (2015, November 2). Why Chemical Transparency Matters. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/why-chemical-transparency-matters

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