Feature Article

Wire and Cable: Untangling Complex Environmental Issues

March 1, 2004

Even the greenest of architects and builders seldom give much consideration to wiring in buildings. Sure, we’d like to use products with minimal environmental and health impacts, but how significant can wiring be? We don’t really install that much wiring, relative to other materials. And there isn’t much choice anyway, is there? Don’t fire codes pretty much dictate what we have to use?

Calgary, Alberta-based Critical Mass uses miles of data cables for its Web design and Internet consulting business. Cables are run in a Haworth/SMED access floor.

Photo: Haworth/SMED
Before we started investigating this topic, our primary concern was a vague one concerning the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheathing used on many wires. A presentation at the Pittsburgh Greenbuild conference by researcher Gail Vittori of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems opened our eyes to a number of additional issues with wiring.

Hundreds of Internet searches, weeks of reading everything we could get our hands on, and dozens of conversations later, we have learned, first of all, just how complex the issue of wiring is. More important, we have become concerned about conventional practice today—especially regarding communications and data cabling and the rapidly growing use of fluoropolymer insulation and jacketing. And we have become alarmed about the growing risk of lead dust accumulation in the ceiling and floor plenums of commercial buildings from the 11 million miles (18 million km) of existing data cabling, most of which contains PVC that is heat-stabilized with lead.

Read on to learn more about these issues and some potential solutions.