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A Recipe For Healthy Buildings

8.25.16 by Stephen Aiguier

What ingredients are in your home? Do you really want to know?

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘you are what you eat’, and this notion has guided many of our beliefs around a healthy diet for the past 20 years. We get it. If you eat highly processed foods, consume trans-fats, and over-indulge at the dessert bar, there will be direct consequences. Many of us have learned to study nutrition labels and keep on eye on the ingredients that we feed to our families and ourselves. We all know we perform better and improve our potential to live a long, healthy life when we eat well. If we care so much about our health and what we put into our bodies, shouldn’t we care about the products we surround ourselves with in our own homes and businesses, where most of us spend 90% of our time? We should. Right?

The 45,000 temporary housing units FEMA supplied in response to Hurricane Katrina and Rita led to a $40 million class action lawsuit. The eventual $14.8 Million settlement concluded the housing units were a source of respiratory and other health-related issues for many of the inhabitants due to the high levels of Formaldehyde, a known and listed carcinogen, present in the trailers components. Many Americans were shocked and outraged by the fact that we would provide toxic housing to those left homeless by these natural disasters. As an industry professional who has an inkling to just how much the public doesn’t know, I wasn’t surprised.

To this day I am dumbfounded when it comes to how little is made public about the toxicity of the materials we surround ourselves with.  When was the last time you checked out the full ingredients list for a building material that you're selecting for your home? Trick question: There is no such list. That's because it's not a requirement. At least not yet.
Did you ever stop to consider that in your carpets containing ‘100% recycled-plastic’, there might be additional ingredients? Did you know that carpet can contain Formaldehyde and a whole series of bio-accumulative toxins like Phthalates? If you dug up the material’s Safety Data Sheet required by the EPA, you will see the Formaldehyde listed. But you would not see an extensive soup of other non-regulated bio-accumulative toxins. Yes, many of these unregulated toxins accumulate in the environment once they are released. Any guess where they accumulate? In our water, in plants, fish, our food, our bellies and many of them can be absorbed through our skin simply by touching the materials like the Phthalates used in Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) one of the most pervasive toxic materials used in the building industry. Phthalates are plasticizers used in PVC to allow the plastic to be more flexible and scientists are able to test your blood for their presence as they accumulate simply through interacting with the material, whether it is crawling around the floor, or opening the window.   

The human health impacts of Phthalets are still uncertain, although they are suspected endocrine disruptors, and further study is necessary. Why don’t we know more about this? Think about how pervasive PVC is. It’s in a majority of electrical components for homes, windows, flooring, cover plates, appliances, and go beyond the home, we pack our foods in it, make toys with it, and use it for countless medical purposes like syringes and blood bags. PVC is also responsible for one of the largest EPA Superfund sites in modern history that destroyed the town and people of Mossville, Louisiana. Who wants to dig up that can of worms?  Certainly not the gargantuan chemical corporation lobbies. Remember the last super product failures, like lead, mercury, asbestos? Who wants to be responsible for the next Lead? Not PPS. We are surrounded by at least as devastating chemicals in many consumer and building products and we are blissfully ignorant, this truly is a problem that is only now gaining attention and will take decades to resolve.

There is positive momentum. Thankfully, on June 22, 2016, our own U.S. Congress along with the Obama administration signed a landmark, bi-partisan (no small feat these days) amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, called The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. For the first time in 40 years we’ve updated our meek TSCA regulations and created a pathway for the EPA to study and expand its list of toxins and create requirements for listing these toxins in our consumer [including building] products. This law finally addresses the lack of transparency in our consumer and building product industries, and introduces EPA guidelines for how to begin to list and eliminate toxins from products. It is a first step and an extremely important one. 

Until the day we know more, what can you do now? Too often, we must go with our gut. The more raw the product (glass, wood, stone, etc.), the healthier it generally is, not too dissimilar than the fact that the ingredient list for a bag of Doritos is a short dissertation, but the ingredients for a bag of raw almonds is pretty straight forward. Okay, beyond common sense, the International Living Future Institute has created through their Living Building Challenge (LEED on steroids) a materials ‘red list’ that lists a majority of the top known bio-accumulative toxic offenders.  You can take that list and do what we at Green Hammer have been doing every day since we took on the Living Building Challenge as the (extremely challenging) standard to meet for designing and building the new tasting room, now open for business, for the award winning Demeter Biodynamic ® Certified Cowhorn Vineyard and Gardens in Applegate, Oregon, you can ASK. Yes, call the manufacturers and ask them if any of these hazardous agents are in their materials. Most have no idea, or will not tell you, we know, we’ve spent thousands of hours asking and documenting materials for this one 2,200 square foot building. We’ve discovered that having this conversation really does effect change in people,honest questioning and sharing of information builds knowledge and knowledge is empowering, kinetic and transforming.

Additional Resources:

How Green Hammer's work is influenced by working with the Living Future Institute.

The EPA's "Toxics Reduction" web section provides links to actions underway and resources for further reducing the toxicity of building materials.

How the Living Building Challenge "Materials Petal" is a tool for instigating environmental change, transparency and social equity in the materials economy.



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