Could your furniture, flooring or finishes impact occupant health? The components of some common materials have been linked to headaches, asthma, long-term reproductive effects and even cancer. That’s why the focus of sustainability has turned decidedly indoors – specifically, toward occupants – now that Health Product Declarations (HPDs) have been recognized in LEED v4.
HPDs are a standard format for reporting product content and associated health information of building products and materials. Think of them as an ingredient label for construction products and interior furnishings to help identify the impacts they may have on human health.
If it sounds straightforward, it’s not. The market is flooded with building products that claim to be “green” or “healthy,” making it difficult to sift through myriad environmental claims. Compounding the problem is the overabundance of third-party product certification programs available (such as Cradle to Cradle, ENERGY STAR, FSC, GREENGUARD and BIFMA’s level) – none of which use a consistent method for evaluating a material’s composition or human health impacts.
Why Use HPDs?
Breeze Glazer, LEED AP BD+C, Sustainable Design Leader, Research Knowledge Manager and Senior Associate at Perkins+Will’s New York office, says there are currently so many building product certifications on the market that it’s difficult to know which one to use for a particular application. “I think it makes sense to get to that single level of standardization for reporting out the chemical composition and health issues related to materials,” he observes.
That’s part of the reason the USGBC made the move to reward product disclosure by including credits in the Materials & Resources (MR) category of LEED v4 for projects that utilize products with HPDs. It streamlines the decision-making process and gives project teams an apples-to-apples comparison of building products for LEED projects.
What Does This Mean for FMs?
First, it creates transparency in the product specification process. By disclosing ingredients in products and furnishings, material specifiers can know with certainty what chemicals are being put into a building. Second, it opens the door to understanding the impact those products and chemicals have on building occupants and helps building owners and operators make more informed decisions.
For example, while it’s commonly known that flame retardants contain chemicals that are harmful to humans, what may be surprising is how prevalent and dangerous they really are. A recent study from Perkins+Will titled “Healthy Environments: Strategies for Avoiding Flame Retardants in the Built Environment” reveals the link between flame retardants and a host of negative health effects.
“Diabetes, neurobehavioral and developmental disorders, cancer, reproductive health effects, and alteration in thyroid function have all been associated with exposure to flame retardants,” the report reveals. Additionally, the Perkins+Will study cites research indicating that 31 flame retardants have been discovered in building and household products, 51 in the indoor dust or air and 33 in people.
But aren’t flame retardants required by building codes, and don’t they save lives? Yes and no.
Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), the de facto flammability standard in North America, has been applied to furniture and textiles since 1975, which requires products with fillers such as foam to withstand exposure to an open flame for 12 seconds (better known as the Steiner Tunnel Test). As a result, furniture and textile manufacturers have treated their products with petroleum-based flame retardants for years.
However, the Chicago Tribune exposed a major controversy with regard to the safety and effectiveness of flame retardants in 2012. The newspaper’s report revealed a deceptive campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries to promote the use of flame retardants in spite of flawed research that showed little evidence of their effectiveness. A month after the Tribune series appeared, California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. directed the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to revise TB117 for improved fire safety without the need for flame retardant chemicals. As a result, a new regulation – TB117-2013 – is now in effect that can be met without the use of flame-retardant chemicals, although it does not ban them from use.
Thankfully, a number of alternative, petroleum-free products are available on the market which effectively inhibit the spread of fire without the harmful effects on human health. (For a list of flame retardant alternatives, visit: transparency.perkinswill.com.)
Why Using HPDs Makes Sense
Facility executives have a greater responsibility than ever before to understand the effects of the products they purchase and install in commercial buildings.
“As we learn more about the health effects of the chemicals that go into these products, we have to broaden our awareness,” explains Suzanne Drake, LEED AP ID+C, EDAC, Senior Interior Designer, Associate at Perkins+Will. “In addition to durability and performance, we also have to ask the questions, ‘What’s in the stuff? What’s the likelihood of it impacting my client in their day-to-day use of it? How does this affect the installer? How does it affect the people who make it? How does it affect the people who have to get rid of it when we’re done with it?’ We have to broaden what we’re looking at to encompass a bigger picture.”
While the focus on material health may seem to add another layer of complexity to the design and construction process, what’s clear is that the industry has embarked on a journey to the next frontier in sustainability.
“One thing is for sure, we have entered a new age of market transparency, and it has changed the conversation about building materials for good,” writes Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of the Healthy Building Network in a 2013 blog post. “We are now having the right conversation about how to better understand the products we build with; how to make better, more informed decisions; and how to catalyze the resources of the building industry to promote the best environmental health outcomes and societal well-being for all.”
3 ways to account for occupant health in your purchasing process
||The Pharos Project
|Read the HPD Open Standard to familiarize yourself with how participating manufacturers report product contents and health information.
||Click on “Search Products” to view HPDs from top manufacturers of products from concrete to cleaning solutions.
||Google, Perkins+Will and other industry titans use Pharos to inform material selection. Choose from the Building Product Library for product-specific information, the Chemical and Material Library for substances of concern and endangered wood species, or the Certification and Standards library to learn more about how the environmental and health impacts of building materials are classified.
Robert Nieminen is a contributing editor for BUILDINGS.