Google’s Green Frontier

Create Your Own Red List to Avoid Future Issues
Despite your best intentions, it may not be possible to eliminate every identifiable building-related toxin from your facility, especially for an existing building that may already incorporate particle board or furnishings with VOC-based coatings. Instead, start phasing out toxins of high concern by creating your own red list of substances to gradually eliminate from your facility – and ban them from future projects.

5 Places to Boost Your Material Know-How

Got a question about the ingredients in a building product? Take a look inside your building materials with these resources.

  1. EPA Chemicals of Concern: The agency issues action plans for the worst-in-class chemicals as more evidence to support their harmful effects emerges. EPA.gov also offers a list of 18 additional chemicals it’s currently assessing for negative health effects.

  2. Declare: The International Living Future Institute, which offers the Living Building Challenge certification program, recently released the materials database Declare. In addition to being listed in the database, Declare-listed products carry a brief statement of product ingredients and sustainable qualities made to look like a nutrition label. Any material can be listed in the Declare database, and products that also qualify for the Living Building Challenge will say so on the label.

  3. Pharos Project: A searchable library of the ingredients of building materials. It assigns scores to manufacturers, brands, and products based on the end user’s likely experiences with it, potential hazards, and what chemicals are used in manufacturing.

  4. Living Building Challenge: Certifying a building to the Challenge’s strict standard expressly forbids the use of any of the materials or chemicals listed here.

  5. Health Product Declarations: Similar to an EPD, this document lists a product’s potential toll on human, animal, and environmental health.

Found another great resource to track what’s in your building? Email it to janelle.penny@buildings.com or post about it on our blog, Buildings Buzz, at buildings.com!

Target the worst items first, Sturgeon recommends. Not only do they pose the most danger, but you’re also more likely to have a successful conversation with a vendor about substitutions.

“We tend to think that lead, mercury, or asbestos aren’t present anymore. We just assume that,” Sturgeon explains. “It’s actually very common for some of these to be present in small amounts – for example, lead in door hardware and plumbing fixtures. Those are the ones everybody has familiarity with, so the first step should be to tackle those and start asking questions.”

After you’ve figured out how to target the worst of the worst, examine existing resources to determine your next move (see sidebar on page 40). Assess the feasibility of addressing each concern and determine when and how you can make greener substitutions with minimal or no extra cost.

Many replacements are cost-neutral, Ravitz notes, and in other cases you may be able to get by with a smaller amount of material.

“A lot of times the strategy we use is ‘Do we need this material? Can we buy a lower quantity?’” Ravitz explains. “In some cases, we found that there are certain types of materials that really do cost more and we end up with a more premium product than we’d normally buy.”

Weigh material attributes from all points in its predicted lifecycle, from manufacturing to disposal, to answer the hard questions about which compounds to move away from and why. Repeat the process for products you’re considering as replacements for red list substances.

For example, PVC is on the Living Building Challenge’s red list, but it poses few (if any) risks to FMs or building occupants. So when it’s time to replace a roof with a PVC membrane, do you stay with PVC because it’s durable, recyclable, and energy efficient? Or do you switch to another type of roofing because PVC is made with chlorine and the phthalates added to some products can leach into the environment as the roof ages? Read up on the pros and cons of each chemical and weigh them with your own priorities.

“Take what’s out there rather than reinventing the wheel each time,” Ravitz advises. “For some materials you can go out and do some simple reading online. Ask manufacturers too, because they know. It’s about getting past the greenwashing and marketing to have real conversations.”

Google did exactly that, and its list of banned materials continues to grow as new concerns emerge. In addition to the products and substances flagged by the EPA and the Living Building Challenge, Google also raised concerns about fly ash and nanomaterials – two products that were previously marketed as more sustainable choices. By examining the available literature, Google decided it could do without both, Ravitz says.

Why add those two to the no-go list?

Fly ash, a byproduct of pollution control equipment in coal-fired power plants, is often recycled into a concrete additive to help reduce the energy intensity of the concrete mixing process, Lent notes. However, the ash may contain harmful substances that could violate your green goals or even create a future problem if the concrete is disturbed.

“The pollution control equipment isn’t just pulling out basic particulates. It’s also loaded with some of the nasty things in coal that we’re trying to get out of the air, like mercury,” Lent explains. “Is concrete bundling up these substances or is it just moving a problem to another spot so it becomes a long-term hazard that emerges when the building is demolished and the concrete gets turned into dust again? If you’re drilling into the wall to install stuff, will you disturb the fly ash and generate toxins?”

Nanomaterials, Lent continues, are in such an early stage of development that building science doesn’t fully understand how they can affect people. These products are created from the same components as normal materials but on an infinitesimally smaller scale. Nanomaterials have different performance attributes solely due to their size – for example, they could discourage dirt from sticking to a coating. However, they can carry a downside.

“Not only do they perform differently, but they have some potentially very different side effects on human health,” Lent explains. “Because they’re so small, they’re able to pass through human cellular barriers the way that traditional materials are not able to. That means that something that might normally have very low toxicity could become much more toxic if it can get past the cells’ defenses. It’s one of a number of new technologies that have both great promise and great threat, neither of which we adequately understand right now.”


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