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Materials + Products

Transparency is just the beginning.

By Tom Lent, Policy Director for the Healthy Building Network and the Vision 2020 Chair for Materials + Products

By 2020, the quest for the “nutrition label” for building products will be over. All building products will come with a Product Declaration, a standard format for disclosing product contents and health information with linkages to carbon content and other critical environmental information. It won’t be exactly like the nutrition label on food products—it will be better. Product declarations will be digital, available on your handheld device via QR codes prominently displayed on the product, searchable in multiple databases that facilitate product-to-product comparisons, and seamlessly integrated into BIM systems. As a result of this leading-edge transparency, the building product industry will be playing a major role in understanding—and solving—some of the key health and environmental challenges now plaguing society.

In 2020, the industry will look at its success in reducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as the beginning of its 21st century leadership role in curbing avoidable chemical exposures in buildings, and how it helped to promote a new generation of healthier products and materials. The emphasis in 2020 will have moved beyond a singular focus on volatile chemicals to encompass a wider range of chemicals, such as halogenated flame retardants (in foam insulation furniture and plastic fabrics), various plastic performance additives (phthalates used to make vinyl flexible and other additives), and bisphenol A (used in epoxies and other high-performance coatings).

Today, new analytic procedures such as the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals are helping manufacturers and designers alike to understand the possible connections between product ingredients and a range of health issues—from asthma and attention deficit disorders to cancer in children and young women. [Disclosure: Lent is a member of the GreenScreen technical advisory committee.] These tools also help to identify inherently safer alternatives.

Continuing this progress will require a dramatic change in the relationship between building product manufacturers and the architects, specifiers, builders, and owners who use their wares. These users are leading a drive for transparency through the Health Product Declaration (HPD) for disclosure of contents and health impacts that complements the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for disclosure of environmental flows and impacts. HPDs, as well as programs such as the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project, which I worked on, and the Living Building Challenge that encourage user engagement with manufacturers, are signals of the beginning of a more robust partnership between users and manufacturers. Before the end of this decade, product declarations will be routine. Disclosure will be required for green-building programs such as LEED, and this will help to drive widespread adoption. Product content listings and key health and environmental indicators (which include health hazard benchmarks, carbon content, and source sustainability) will be considered just another set of physical characteristics and performance attributes (such as thickness, tensile strength, R-value, or stain resistance) and they will be routinely reported on all products. Integration of this information into BIM tools will allow users to track their projects’ health and environmental profiles, and to optimize their product selections to minimize the impact on both humans and the environment.

But even more important than the effect on individual buildings, the development of big data tools for aggregating this product information will allow manufacturers and project teams to help public health researchers characterize the use of different chemicals across buildings and communities. They will be able to use this data to assess their association with project health outcomes, and to guide materials research and policy. By 2030, all of this will lead to a revolution in green chemistry that will end concerns about the negative health and environmental effects of building product formulations.

Between now and this future, however, lie substantial challenges. Trade secrets, intellectual property claims, and complex supply chains are barriers to identifying and disclosing ingredients. Divergent opinions about risk and contradictory hazard assessment protocols leave manufacturers confused about what to prioritize in their re-formulation efforts.

Fortunately, players are already exploring opportunities for harmonizing protocols and programs. Realistic assessment of the realities of industrial information gathering will lead to a narrower and more time-limited approach to protections. The next few years will see the development of shared databases, so that researchers, formulators, and assessors will all have access to this data, which will, in turn, make health and environmental assessments faster, more accurate, and cheaper. Common portals will give manufacturers easy, one-stop entry into their choice of relevant programs and will provide users plenty of information on product health and environmental profiles.

Spurred by this increased interest in the effects of materials, manufacturers will increasingly seek to go beyond just making their products less bad. They will instead find innovative ways to make their products or their manufacturing processes contribute positively to the environment. This shift has already started, as products with a range of regenerative material claims are available in the marketplace today. Some wall and roofing manufacturers are citing studies showing that their products eat VOCs and reduce smog. A cement manufacturer is turning its process into a net consumer of carbon dioxide. A new insulation product using mushrooms consumes all manner of wasted cellulose and can be turned into nutritional compost at the end of its life. A textile manufacturer uses industrial processes that provide cleaner water back to a river than the water it pulled from the river initially. Solar manufacturers are constructing photovoltaic panels in factories that produce more energy from their rooftop than they use in the production process.

Developing, assessing, and marketing such regenerative materials also present challenges and pitfalls. Well-intentioned designs can have unintended consequences. A smog-eating product may leach chemicals that are toxic to aquatic environments or flip the direction of the reaction and turn itself into a smog producer in different environmental conditions. Manufacturers will need to test new designs carefully before making claims—or other watchdog organizations certainly will. The backlash from faulty claims will undo some manufacturers along the way.

A wealth of opportunities can be found in the world of biomimicry. Nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolutionary experimentation has much to teach us. Using knowledge from natural systems, green chemistry principles and an open dialog between manufacturers and customers, we can redesign our industrial systems in ways that are healthy and regenerative, supporting a better world for our grandchildren.

This article was originally published in ECOBUILDING Pulse December 2013.

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