Necessary and sometimes benign, chemicals are in everything we touch, smell, inhale and ingest. They exist naturally in the environment and human beings have discovered how to harvest them and create synthetic chemical compounds for a myriad of uses. We know there are thousands of natural chemical compounds that exist in the biosphere, still undiscovered. We also know that for human beings chemicals can have healing properties. But they can also be toxic or hazardous.
Whether chemicals are toxic has to do with stability and concentration, how they migrate from one place to another and/or how they are emitted by industrial processes or solids. There is a common assumption, sometimes true, but more often shown to be false in the last 20 years, that when a chemical is used in a building product it is permanently “encapsulated”, and is therefore benign. Yet, research has shown that numerous products “off-gas” after they are installed or create dusts that migrate into living spaces or air-conditioning systems.
Unknown to us, chemical compounds are entering our bodies through the skin and the lungs and the effects may not be understood. Determining the toxicity of a chemical compound in a building product can be complex because the effects can take years to manifest and other variables can come into play. But one thing is certain: evidence is mounting from the science of toxicology that the effects can be very damaging on a short-term and a long-term basis. When studies find that there can be more than 300 synthetic chemicals in the cord blood of infants (many of them bio-accumulative), it is time to take action.
In the last 40 years, the global chemical industry has expanded by four-fold, according to the UN Environment Programme Global Chemicals Outlook (2012), and the building industry is a major player in this expansion. The use of chemicals in building products has exploded in everything from coatings to plasticizers, roofing membranes, insulation, piping, vapor barriers, flame retardants, wood preservatives, etc. But very little is actually known about the vast majority of these chemicals, how they interact with the environment they are placed in and what their effects are on human health.
It is estimated that there are over 80,000 chemicals in use in the building industry, but less than 1% have been tested for toxicity or have safety data available, and less than a handful have been banned. We know some of the usual bad actors: asbestos, copper arsenate, formaldehyde, benzene, etc. However, there is a huge gap in our understanding of the interactions of these tens of thousands of other compounds with humans in the built environment. The only law in place to regulate toxic substances in the US is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. However, this is now widely considered to be totally inadequate as a regulatory device since manufacturers are not required by the EPA to disclose hazardous substances (see the NYT article A Toothless Law on Toxic Chemicals).
Although there is a steep cliff to get over, the good news is that numerous initiatives are being advanced to address this potentially serious problem, and there is even some agreement among members of Congress and the chemical industry that something has to be done ASAP to move forward on this critical issue of public health. It is obviously important to have a level playing field, as there will inevitably be pushback from manufacturers considering the areas of product liability and intellectual property.
Senate Bill S.1009, the Chemical Safety Improvements Act, introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg is now in committee. Additionally, the US Green Building Council has included prescriptions for Healthy Building Materials into its recently introduced LEED v.4, which require architects and specifiers to consider chemical safety in building products as a major factor. The existing Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is also considered somewhat toothless, and so a new standard, the Health Product Declaration (HPD) has been proposed to insure complete transparency with regard to ecotoxicity and human toxicity.
The Healthy Building Network, established in 2000, has as its mission to disseminate information about hazardous chemicals in building products and develop assessment tools for building professionals. The Pharos Project is building an on-line database of building product categories, which contain libraries of building products, chemicals and materials with complete descriptions of their compositions and related health issues.
There is, of course, widespread concern in the chemical industry that fear-mongering will result in over-regulation and business will be unnecessarily damaged as a result. But this is a common complaint from all industries when they are called to the carpet to make changes and be accountable for public health issues. Automobile safety had to go through the same thing in the 70s and 80s and the industry survived.
There is even good evidence that regulation, when sensibly but thoroughly applied, can spur innovation in an industry. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) published their study Driving Innovation: How stronger laws help bring safer chemicals to market in February 2013. The study shows convincingly how regulation has spiked patented inventions of safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals such as phthalates over the last ten years.
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