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Green harmony

How science and the building industry can join forces for a healthier environment

SHARE Nov–Dec 2019

Green Harmony green city

Green City

Illustration by Matt Carlson

What happens when two architects, two research scientists, and an advocate for healthy buildings walk into a room?

If their assignment is to influence the architecture, engineering, and construction (A/E/C) community to embrace the design of healthier buildings, they might pose these questions: If you knew that a building product you selected for your project caused cancer, you wouldn’t specify it, would you? If you knew that day-care furniture was exposing children to a vast array of toxic chemicals, you wouldn’t buy it, would you? If you knew that stain-retardant treatment was poisoning our water supply, would you still select white carpet and upholstery, which won’t stand up to use without that treatment?

Architects and designers need product manufacturers to be transparent and disclose ingredients, and they need exposure scientists—who study the resulting health effects when humans come into contact with toxic materials—to share their research. Earlier this year, Royer Architects’ Rachelle Ain, Silent Spring Institute’s Robin Dodson and Kathryn Rodgers, Healthy Building Network’s Bill Walsh, and I pooled our expertise to urge the scientific community to consider practical applications when planning their research. Together, we wrote a review article, “Pruning chemicals from the green building landscape,” for the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, to integrate information and promote interdisciplinary understanding of these issues.

In our article, we focus on five areas that help illustrate how we can reduce and prevent toxic exposures:

1. Green building certification systems. The US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) promotes sustainable, high-performance buildings throughout the country, but the LEED rating system’s impact extends beyond just the number of actual building certifications (more than 100,000 so far). The Materials and Resources credit category has spurred building product manufacturers toward transparency. The Low-Emitting Materials credit has inspired architects and designers to demand lower volatile organic compound interior building products and more testing. Newer certification systems, such as the Living Building Challenge (LBC), have highlighted the importance of indoor environmental quality. The LBC’S Red List, for example, is a continually evolving list that identifies building products containing chemicals to be avoided. More recent certification programs focus on human health and wellness, supporting research links between occupant well-being, productivity, cognitive function, and healthy indoor environment, which are compelling incentives for both building owners and business leadership. New England is fortunate to have so many architects and owners who follow advanced certification systems, but we don’t need to wait for that purple unicorn client to take action. We can learn from these programs how to incorporate healthier design and construction for all our projects.

2. Government building codes and standards. The federal government sets very few safety standards for building products or indoor air quality. Of the more than 80,000 chemicals listed in the Toxic Substances Control Act, only nine are banned from use. State regulations, based on exposure science research, can help motivate manufacturers to create healthier building and consumer products. For example, California’s standards for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products solidified a market demand to develop formaldehyde-free materials. Pending Massachusetts legislation would allow consumers to purchase furniture and consumer products that are free of chemical flame retardants, which have been scientifically linked to increased rates of cancer in firefighters but not to increased fire safety.

3. Building materials marketplace. Unlike food products, which must disclose their ingredients by US law, the construction industry isn’t required to disclose the chemical contents of building and consumer products. The movement toward transparency and the hazard evaluation of building materials has created market-based opportunities to develop new materials that meet the requirements of various green building standards and consumer demands. In the same way that large food retailers have moved into organic products, national home-improvement retailers have pledged to remove toxic chemicals from their shelves and to require flooring vendors to do the same with their product lines.

4. Design and construction. As health and exposure issues are coming to the fore in design, architects and designers need clear direction in making better choices. Although there are many red lists detailing chemicals to avoid, there is very little information about finding better alternatives, green chemistry solutions, and avoiding regrettable substitutions. Open communication between environmental health researchers and architects is critical to forming decisions that have long-lasting impact.

5. Building occupancy. Unwanted chemical exposures can occur even in the most diligently specified buildings. Emissions from materials as well as occupant-introduced products result in indoor exposure and associated health effects resulting from that exposure. Measuring that impact is complicated. Many chemicals of interest are associated with chronic health conditions and indirectly affect our health. We trust exposure scientists to infer the health impacts, based on data and varying exposure levels, and clearly communicate them with architects and builders.

For green buildings to be truly sustainable and prioritize health, we need to do better. Green building design needs to move beyond resource efficiencies, such as energy and water. The average American spends 90 percent of the time indoors. Design strategies need to consider how materials affect chemical exposures and occupant health. Exposure scientists are key; their research on indoor chemical exposures plays an important role in the transition to healthy buildings. We also need to encourage building owners to allow access for post-occupancy exposure testing. We need to listen to the science.

Researchers can study whether building codes and green certification programs affect exposures, test and prioritize chemical and material combinations, and share and translate the latest indoor environment science for designers. Mainstream green building standards and their supporting organizations need to continue to push for transparency and safer products in the marketplace. Isn’t it more logical to prevent disease in the first place, rather than to deal with the health consequences later? By connecting the A/E/C community with exposure scientists and product manufacturers, we can work together toward healthier buildings for everyone.