Material Health: Specification Strategies

The first article in our series on material health explored toxicity and exposure in the built environment, including the ways that people can be exposed and the process for assessing risk. The quality of the indoor environment is vital to human health because we spend 90 percent of our lives (on average) indoors. And it certainly doesn’t help that indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air, or that toxic chemicals found in building materials show up regularly in blood and urine samples. Plus, toxicity disproportionately affects the lower income brackets, minorities, those with chronic conditions, and both the very young and very old. Building professionals find themselves in a particularly unique position to improve the indoor environment by choosing products, materials, and technologies that promote health and wellbeing. Materials matter, and in this article will focus on some of the strategies that designers, architects, and other building industry professionals can adopt for healthier specification.

Limit the Palette

There are over 80,000 synthetic chemicals commercially available in the United States, but the majority of them haven’t been fully tested, in great part because of significant gaps in regulatory infrastructure. Since there is little information about the toxicity of these chemicals, many policymakers and scientists recommend using the Precautionary Principle, which maintains that when there is no conclusive evidence about the risks of a given chemical, it should be avoided outright. Rather than waiting for absolute proof of a chemical’s toxicity, specifiers should protect their clients and construction workers by exercising caution. The European Union implemented the Precautionary Principle as the basis of REACH, their chemical regulation, and many design firms and building industry stakeholders have also pledged to integrate this approach in material selection. For example, Perkins and Will developed the Precautionary List, an online resource with information about known hazardous chemicals used in the building and design industry. It also provides information about which materials contain toxic chemicals and identifies safer alternatives.

Frameworks like Six Classes can help design professionals avoid problematic categories of chemicals, like solvents, for example, which are known to contain many toxic chemicals and can be found in products such as oil-based paints, adhesives, wood finishes, and sealants. When a toxic solvent is phased out of use, it tends to be replaced by similar solvents. Check a product’s ingredients to determine whether a harmful substance has been replaced by something nontoxic or if manufacturers have substituted a similar “chemical cousin.” Safer alternatives to solvents include using water-based paints and choosing screws and other mechanical fasteners rather than adhesives. Knowing what to look for makes it is much easier to design out harmful ingredients.

Encourage Transparency

Having an understanding of what ingredients our products contain allows for the foundation to make more informed decisions about what kinds of materials to use, and how they will affect human and environmental health. Although transparency is widely supported, there are obstacles to achieving this industry-wide goal. Many suppliers, manufacturers, and designers are concerned about potential liability, losing market-share if a product is found to contain a harmful chemical, or incurring the costs of making changes in supply chains, among other fears and qualms. And when working on a tight timetable, how can they set aside time to do this extra research? Despite these obstacles, and even though only a tiny fraction of building projects currently pursues transparency goals, this number has increased exponentially in the past decade.

The market drives manufacturer participation in transparency initiatives. This means that the more demand manufacturers see for healthier materials, the more likely they are to make a change. Design firms play a key role here—they need to advocate for transparency when choosing materials and talking with suppliers, as well as express their concerns about material health and toxicity. Transparency documents, such as Health Product Declarations (HPDs), Declare Labels, and Mindful Materials labels, provide an entry point for a conversation about what role toxic chemicals play in building materials and how they can be replaced. The introduction of new formulations and breakthroughs free of traditionally used toxic chemicals is in great part due to what many green building organizations refer to as “the ask.” The ask, when done on a large scale, sets in motion a process that will most likely lead to a wider assortment of innovative, cost- and performance-competitive healthier materials options.

Take Advantage of Existing Resources

The building industry is swimming with reputable platforms, databases, frameworks, and institutions aimed to help professionals avoid dangerous ingredients and select safer alternatives. These resources have been developed by industry stakeholders, including design firms and NGOs, at a rate that significantly outpaces the progress of regulatory bodies.

Many of these are chemical avoidance lists, which provide the names of specific chemicals or chemical groups that cause harm. Some certifications and green building rating systems also establish their own lists of chemicals to avoid. Chemical avoidance lists include: ILFI’s Red List, EPA Chemicals of Concern, REACH Substances of Very High Concern, C2C’s Basic Level Restricted Substances List, and Perkins and Will’s Precautionary List.

Use platforms like Mindful Materials to vet products’ VOCs, material ingredients, environmental profile, material sourcing, social responsibility, and other transparency information. Apply the Six Classes framework to avoid regrettable substitutions and better define substitution criteria. It can be overwhelming to dive into the complex world of material health and toxicity, but selecting safer, healthier materials is a lot easier and more efficient with these tools at your disposal.


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