Op-Ed

Chemicals Article Lacked Balance

Tandus Ethos carpet-cushion backing is made from recycled film from auto glass.

Photo: Tandus
As a long-time reader of

Environmental Building News, I have come to rely upon and respect your publication for its professionalism and unbiased reporting about new developments in the fields of sustainable design and construction. In fact, when asked by design professionals who are interested in increasing their “sustainability IQ” what publications I recommend, I always suggest

EBN as the only publication that is indispensable.

As such, I was surprised to see the article “Chemistry for Designers: Understanding Hazards in Building Products” in the Mar. 2010 issue. Unlike most of your publication’s articles, this article lacked balance and presented the same unproven assertions about several widely used building materials, including PVC. While I recognize that some people have legitimate concerns about PVC and agree that it is important to have ongoing open dialogue, your article (and accompanying tables) presents only one side and lacks depth. I realize that you are attempting to distill complex information into more easily consumed segments, but this approach raises more questions than it answers.

For example, one table recommends replacing commercial carpets that contain PVC with carpets that meet the NSF-140 Platinum standard. The NSF-140 standard makes no reference to PVC in carpet. In fact, there are several types of carpet and hybrid resilient sheet flooring made with PVC that are certified to the NSF-140 Platinum standard.

Finally, while I appreciate the front-page acknowledgment of Tandus’ C&A brand and our work with Kaiser Permanente in developing a new floor covering based on their preference to phase out the use of PVC, I do question the casual reference to the “proactive” manufacturers mentioned on page 11. While there’s no doubt that some of these manufacturers have meaningful track records and are doing commendable work in reducing the environmental impacts of their products, wouldn’t it be better to actually cite these? Exactly what have these companies done to develop and offer replacements? As presented in your article, the point is ambiguous, at best, and only contributes to the flood of greenwashing that

EBN has been so effectively working to counter during the past several years.

Director of Marketing, Tandus

Editors’ ResponseWe appreciate the substantive critique of “Chemistry for Designers.” We too recognize the pitfalls in “attempting to distill complex information into more easily consumed segments.” However, given the widespread confusion in dealing with these issues, we decided that EBN could best help our readers by providing perspective at an overview level—with many of the concerns described in this article having already been addressed at greater depth by previous EBN articles. We tried to describe the core complexity of the issues and the tradeoffs involved while also giving direction to designers on where to focus their efforts.

The perspective on PVC presented here reflects EBN’s position over the years—we have repeatedly expressed concerns about PVC, particularly about phthalates and other additives—while also making it clear that in some cases the feasible alternatives to PVC may be even less preferable. Similarly, our GreenSpec Directory sometimes includes PVC-based products that have other outstanding environmental attributes (e.g., weatherization assemblies), and excludes PVC-free alternatives that have been shown to have greater life-cycle impacts (e.g., cast-iron sewer pipe).

Mr. Leonard is totally correct that NSF-140 does not specifically address PVC issues, nor some of the other concerns mentioned. It is our understanding that the NSF-140 Platinum standard may end up favoring PVC because of the recycled content requirement (it is easier to recycle PVC), but NSF-140 Platinum does require CA 01350 emissions testing and excludes PBDE flame retardants, which were also concerns grouped in the table. These were meant to be read as examples, as was the set of “proactive manufacturers” mentioned. While we feel this article provides needed guidance in a complex area, we certainly appreciate being taken to task by our readers when they feel the approach we’ve taken fails to reflect EBN’s longstanding reputation.

Published June 1, 2010

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