Chemical Issues for Sustainability in Building Construction and Green Building Chemistry

Posted on 10/11/2013 4:06:03 PM By Bob Braun

In my last three posts, I reviewed some of the US and international programs for building sustainability and summarized the developing efforts to classify green chemicals.  In this post, I will focus directly on the current green building initiatives designed to penalize those products containing any chemical listed as “red” regardless of the comparative functional long term value of the building product versus another product that does not contain a “red” chemical.

As I mentioned in my last few posts, the Oct 21-23 ASC Convention will provide a major forum for discussion of the sustainability issues. 

  • Sara Cederberg of USGBC will provide a LEED v4 technical update
  • Paul Bertram of Kingspan Insulated Panels, Inc. will focus on the impact of LEED v4 to the specification community
  • Ujjal Vyas of the Alberti group will detail the legal implications for design professionals when involved in certified programs
  • D’Lane Wisner of the American High Performance Building Coalition presents the association’s efforts to obtain better involvement of scientific and manufacturing experts in Green sustainability programs such as LEED
  • Paul Anastas of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University will discuss innovation, sustainability, and green chemistry
  • Robert Smith of Strategic Marketing BioFormix, Inc. looks at what green and clean really means to users and investors

So if you have interest in any or all of the above issues, plan to attend the ASC Convention for a thorough update on sustainability and developing green issues.

Now in this post, I want to first review the history behind some of the recent chemical “red lists”.  One might ask why they are needed since historically the classification of a toxic chemical has been the prerogative of tax payer funded government agencies that are charged with the responsibility for public health e.g. NIOSH, OSHA, EPA.  The red list organizations do not usurp these existing government organizations but utilize various existing data to judge what “deserves” to be on their red list.  Additionally I noted that the placement of many chemicals on some of these lists considers only the toxicity of the chemical and not the intended use or the known short term or long term hazardous dose level.  Further there seems to be a large focus on the inhalation hazard with much less regard to the ingestion or dermal effects.  Lead and other heavy metals are examples of a chemicals missing on some red lists.  And of course some of the red listed products are commonly found in every day room furnishings and consumer products as well.

I would much prefer to see a developing green system where the hazard exposure potential for the chemical content of a product was balanced using a more scientific approach.  This implies that a more comprehensive approach is needed and this has also been the norm for all historic exposure situations.  Ignoring the other benefits of using a specific chemical (that has a greater hazard level) is a simplistic approach that sounds good to the less informed until the other sustainability value sacrifices are realized.

I also question whether the intermediate products that many mixtures of chemicals react to or cure to are adequately considered in most attempts to quantify the hazard of a product.  Certainly all responsible manufactures spend considerable resources and efforts to insure they conform to all government and industry standards and even encourage better efforts in this area since the economic incentive to “not harm” is very great.  Much of the ado in identifying hazards relates as well to the evolution of knowledge over time.  Thus something that is green now may not be tomorrow.

Green efforts are a desirable societal initiative and if developed in a scientifically comprehensive way will lead to safer more sustainable buildings.  However, if good science is underutilized the long term results will have little or possibly no benefit and may simply raise costs.  In many ways the current efforts are very sound in that the many salient issues in sustainability are being included.  Green credits for site selection, building orientation, water usage, energy, and lighting contamination are several examples of issues heretofore not considered comprehensively.

I will go into more detail in my future posts on green chemistry lists, red lists, and related issues. I will also discuss some insights from my recent interviews with Paul Bertram, Ujjval Vyas, and D’Lane Wisner who are presenters at the Oct 21-23 ASC Convention.  Ujjval will also be presenting a webinar on November 13th, titled the Perils of Manufacturer Misrepresentation by Green Advocacy, USGBC, and NGOs. Finally, I plan to review specific red lists and discuss the rationale for placing some chemicals on these referenced list.