Chemicals of Concern: Cut through the Controversy

Where to Find Answers
There’s also the rarely discussed middle ground – eliminating the worst offenders with the most scientific evidence against them and making informed choices about other chemicals.

Architecture firm Perkins+Will generally adheres to the Precautionary Principle whenever possible – to the extent that it developed a separate section on its website, the Precautionary List, to catalog general chemicals of concern, asthmagens and asthma triggers, and halogenated flame retardants. But this resource isn’t a red list, says Robin Guenther, Perkins+Will’s sustainable healthcare design leader.

Rather, it serves as a library of sorts to help clients make informed decisions about materials.

However, the answers to those questions aren’t always readily available. Manufacturers tend to be wary about releasing information about proprietary materials, and toxicological profiles of many chemicals are incomplete. Sometimes, Guenther explains, the best an FM can do is to weigh the risks, find out if there are any high-performing product alternatives on the market, and make the best choice possible with the information available.

“As an owner, you’re asked to weigh a product that contains endocrine-disrupting chemicals against a product that contains carcinogens. Which do you pick?” Guenther says. “It seems to amplify the complexity the more you study it. Sometimes our specifications still include substances on the Precautionary List because there aren’t available alternatives and they have particular performance characteristics.”

Fortunately, you have three powerful strategies at your disposal to assess chemicals of concern: materials red lists, lifecycle assessment (LCA), and supply chain optimization.

Strategy No. 1: Materials Red Lists
A red list simply designates a registry of chemicals that cannot be included in building materials. It’s often encountered when earning a green building certification. The Living Building Challenge, for example, lays out 20 substances ranging from asbestos to wood treatments that contain creosote, arsenic, or pentachlorophenol. Your project cannot use any of the 20 if you want to earn this certification.

The materials optimization credit in drafts of LEED v4 includes a voluntary red list of sorts, a move that has drawn fire from organizations like the American Chemistry Council and the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing. LEED’s proposed credit for material ingredient optimization is voluntary, but some critics are concerned that it could someday become a prerequisite.

The proposed credit is designed to “transform the marketplace” and encourage safer formulations, says Baer, and having a pass-fail system for every product based on its contents certainly offers an easier way to choose one product over another. However, red lists miss the key component of exposure, notes Denise Van Valkenburg, Design for the Environment and sustainability engineer for Herman Miller and chair of the human and ecosystem health committee for BIFMA.

“Risk is hazard plus exposure or time plus exposure, and red lists don’t take that into account,” Van Valkenburg notes. “In some cases, the hazard’s going to persist throughout the lifecycle. In other cases, the material is bound up in a way that it’s not going to be an issue. Personally, I would love to see all red list chemicals go away, but I know from a cost and performance standpoint that there are times when we need to use them.”

Also note that though red lists are black and white – a product is either permissible or not – it can result in some surprising exclusions. For example, PVC, which appears in everything from piping to roofing membranes, appears on many red lists because dioxins (a potent type of neurotoxin) are released during its manufacture and when it’s burned. However, when it’s installed in a building, it poses few to no risks to building occupants, and its long lifetime, recyclability, and durability make it a popular choice.

So is PVC safe or not? The answer depends on how your organization defines “safe” in terms of product ingredients.

“The definition of green and sustainable varies depending on who you talk to,” explains Debra Phillips, managing director of the American Chemistry Council. After the first versions of LEED v4 were released, this industry group helped found the American Coalition for High-Performance Buildings, which publicly opposed the materials optimization credit.

“We take a broad view of sustainability – it deals with safety, environmental impacts, end of life issues, whether the material can be recycled or reused, and its durability,” Phillips adds. “Cost is also part of the sustainability equation – how are monies best spent in building construction and maintenance? The red list approach may look attractive because you can say ‘Does the product you’re giving me contain any of these ingredients?’ But the easy approach can lead organizations in the wrong direction when issues of material performance, longevity, energy intensity, and environmental impacts are left out of the analysis. You might end up with an alternative that has a worse environmental and health profile than the original material.”

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