Chemicals of Concern

Building Science
Chip Henderson, AIA, CEM, LEED Faculty
April 5, 2013
Chemicals of Concern

Specifying better building products is impossible without a clear understanding of the ingredients in the materials themselves. Most of us would assume that basic toxicity testing has been conducted and that all chemicals in the marketplace today are safe. A recent EPA study has found that this is not a prudent assumption. 

Of the 100,000 plus chemicals in commerce today, over 3,000 these are manufactured or imported at a rate of more than one million pounds annually. Only seven percent of these “high production volume” (HPV) chemicals have a full set of test data and some have no data on how toxic they are to humans or the environment. According to the European Commission, "little safety information exists for 99 percent of the tens of thousands of chemicals placed on the market before 1981". Of  these, only 3,000 have been tested and over 800 are known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction. This lack of information compromises the public's right to know about the chemicals found in our environment, our homes, and our workplace.

Many of the environmental impacts of buildings come from the materials used to construct them. Using toxic substances (such as phthalates or brominated flame retardants) is sometimes justified because "at very low levels they are not a concern to health". However, the risks to human health and to the environment from many of these chemicals are not widely understood and may bioaccumulate in the human body, thus reaching dangerous concentrations. They may also chemically react with one another, producing new substances with new risks. 

To minimize these risks, industry must do more to provide basic information on the chemicals used in the manufacture of building products. “Just like nutrition labels in the grocery store, project teams want to know what’s in the building products they are using,” says Brendan Owens, VP, LEED Technical Development. 

And according to Joel Ann Todd, Chair of the LEED Steering Committee, “Since the inception of the LEED Green Building Rating System, the program has been based on one overriding goal: To reduce negative environmental and human impacts of the built environment by promoting innovation and transforming the marketplace.” The proposed new version of LEED, scheduled for member ballot mid-2013, continues that upward momentum. New Material and Resource (MR) credits will “reward project teams for selecting products for which the chemical ingredients in the product are inventoried using an accepted methodology and for selecting products verified to minimize the use and generation of harmful substances.” These credits encourage manufactures to identify, document, and communicate more information on health, safety and environmental characteristics of chemical ingredients. 

Manufactures that are market leaders have already started capturing and submitting data on chemical ingredients and their effects. European regulations such as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals) effective in 2007 helped  jump start the disclosure and reporting process. I feel we should support the new LEED v4 MR credits can continue this transformative behavior.