Chemical Red Lists and Issues for Sustainability in Building Construction

Posted on 10/28/2013 1:21:25 PM By Bob Braun

In this post, I begin a review of the chemical red list concept which has been in development for building sustainability and I summarize the recent efforts to classify “green chemicals”.  I will also discuss some insights from my recent interviews with Paul Bertram, Ujjval Vyas, and D’Lane Wisner who were presenters at the Oct 21-23 ASC Convention in Minneapolis. You can review my last blog for a summary of all the speakers’ subject matter.

First let’s look at why these lists are important.  Every manufacturer wants to use the safest chemical possible and formulators have been working to do so for many years.  The formulator must now more than ever be alert to safer options and the green lists can be of some help. 

 There are several issues to consider…

  • Red list chemicals are known to have greater health hazards for one or more of the many possible exposure conditions or for detrimental environmental effects
  • There are sustainable building certifying agencies such as LEED that provides certifying credit points for a building which does not use red list chemicals in its many building components
  • Some of these chemicals have been more highly regulated or banned outright or at restricted to specific exposure trigger levels by one or more regulatory government agencies e.g. NIOSH, OSHA, EPA

Listed below are links to a few of the red list originators and references to some of the chemicals contained on them.  The GreenScreen Tool mentioned below has now been finalized and is being used extensively by Green agencies and manufacturers and others.  The tool relies heavily on a set of comprehensively developed chemical hazards obtained from many government and private sources.  This tool identifies four levels of hazard and the greatest LEED v4 credit is given for products using chemicals at the lowest hazard level.  I suggest you review this link and the several videos available there.  There are many suggestions for identifying less hazardous components and most importantly for avoiding substituting a less hazardous component that next year is found to be equally hazardous.

  • Healthy Building Network - Pharos Project
  • Clean Production Action sponsoring the GreenScreen Tool
  • Perkins + Will - Precautionary List

Despite the great value created by the several red list programs, there are some problems.  Here is a quoted example from the cover page for the Pharos Project regarding MDI:

Methylene diisocyanate (MDI) is found in polyurethane adhesives. In April 2011, the US EPA noted that MDI is present in adhesives in an "uncured" form. These are "diisocyanates to which people may be exposed... there is very limited information available about the use and exposure patterns of consumers who may be exposed to products containing MDI and TDI”.

For a subscription fee one can access the full chemical list at Pharos and a free 30 day trial is available as well.  The above summary of MDI for someone without detailed knowledge might lead to the conclusion that any product containing MDI is a net deficit to a building’s construction.  This assumption would defeat all the value that many of such products (such as sealants) would bring… in terms of energy savings, occupant comfort, and the building’s durability and reduced need for maintenance.

My read suggests that there is a certain amount confusion created by the many Green players.  And by rushing to improve building quality may inadvertently negatively affect the same.  One problem here is that each product is unique by use pattern, and by application function and quantity of material used.  So a more comprehensive analysis is needed in order to not do harm as one tries to improve sustainability.  The existence of a component chemical on a red list should not be the sole reason to “black-list” a product.  Nor should it be the sole reason to deduct points from a building’s sustainability calculation by a rating agency.  And of course some of the red listed products are commonly found in every day room furnishings and consumer products as well.  The well meaning efforts of the red lists (and more importantly of certifying agencies that use these lists) fail to address these product issues and others as well.  For example, the GreenScreen Tool currently treats polymers like mixtures thus failing to address transformation products adequately while the user of the list may not be sophisticated enough to understand why this matters!

Here are a few insights that I gleamed from my interviews with three of the ASC Convention speakers addressing sustainability issues:

  • Paul Bertram of Kingspan Insulated Panels, Inc. will focus on the impact of LEED v4 to the specification community.  He has also expressed concerns that the red lists are not well enough founded on a comprehensive understanding of the chemicals themselves and overstate the hazard for the final product transformation products that are often much less hazardous.
  • Ujjal Vyas of the Alberti group will detail the legal implications for design professionals when involved in Green certification programs.  He has noted that some design professionals who “cheer-lead” the use of certain products are often not qualified to do so and encounter legal risk in this way.  Those in the design community should not miss this presentation.
  • 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.  His coalition desires to improve the quality of these certification programs by better employing the significant expert chemical and product knowledge not currently being utilized in these programs.

Fall presentations are available here.

I will go into more detail in my future posts on green chemistry issues, red lists, and related issues.  I plan to review specific red lists and discuss the rationale for placing some chemicals on these referenced lists.

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