BUILDINGS - Smarter Facilities Management


Chemicals of Concern: Cut through the Controversy

Strategies to avoid the hype and make optimal decisions for your facility

By Janelle Penny

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    Designed as a “living lab” to showcase a deep commitment to the environment, Perkins+Will’s Atlanta office uses a wide variety of nontoxic and low-emitting paints, finishes, and other materials. Product selection was guided by the firm’s Precautionary List. Photo by Eduard Hueber/ArchPhoto

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    The relaxing environment at the Center for Prenatal Pediatrics is created with low-VOC materials carefully chosen to reduce patients’ exposure to possible developmental toxins and carcinogens. Photo by Eduard Hueber/ArchPhoto

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    The New MSDS: Easy, Simple Hazard Information

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    To avoid the need for many chemicals on the Precautionary List, the TEC-SMART facility in Malta, NY, sought out repurposed materials. The exterior cladding, for example, is crafted from local mushroom wood (reclaimed shelving from commercial mushroom farms). Photo by Eduard Hueber/ArchPhoto

The debate over safe building materials shows no signs of stopping as LEED v4 draws closer to its official release. It’s clear that the certification system will include credits for optimizing building material ingredients and the supply chain in some form, but what does that optimization actually mean?

Not surprisingly, the answer isn’t black or white. In fact, it’s more gray than green. That’s why a smart manager weighs the evidence to make optimal material choices, minimize potentially harmful chemicals, and ensure top building performance.

But what’s an FM to do when even that evidence is a matter of interpretation? For example, if you’re trying to eliminate chemicals of concern from your facility, can you still use Neoprene for its tough, tear-resistant qualities in waterproofing membranes, or should you find an alternative because hazardous gases can be released when it’s produced or burned?

Develop a solid strategy to dodge the rhetoric from all sides – if you don’t, your purchasing policy will be stuck in a gray area.

Develop a Game Plan
First, understand and develop specifics regarding greening your organization’s material purchases. What product attributes matter most to your company’s decision-makers? Is a product permissible if its manufacturing process has a negative environmental impact, or can it be used as long as it poses no risk to building occupants? There are two major schools of thought seeking to answer that question:

The Precautionary Principle: This way of thinking acknowledges that there is still much to learn about the effects of various chemicals found in building products. Rather than risk exposure to a health hazard due to a lack of available knowledge, practitioners of the Precautionary Principle refrain from using the chemical of concern until it’s proven to be safe without a doubt.

“We know that a lot of these substances have long-term effects,” says Jerry Yudelson, leader of Yudelson Associates’ consulting team, LEED Fellow, and founder of the first regional USGBC chapter. “The concern is that we may be creating long-term unhealthy environments even while we’re doing all of these green upgrades. The overarching principle is that we ought to err on the side of caution.”

The Risk Assessment Approach: Instead of avoiding chemicals of concern altogether, this principle examines how the chemical is used in a specific application and determines the risk of hazard exposure. A chemical that causes adverse health impacts on its own may behave differently when it’s combined with dozens of other substances.

“This approach says that there are thresholds of concern, and depending upon where a particular chemical is used, you may or may not eliminate it,” explains Steve Baer, chair of USGBC’s Technical Advisory Group for the Materials & Resources (MR) category, which will likely include materials restrictions and/or supply chain credits when the final version of LEED v4 is released.

Neither practice is wrong or right, but knowing where your organization stands is critical to wading through the contradicting claims from proponents of both principles.

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