Chemical Red Lists and Issues for Sustainability in Building Construction Part 2

Posted on 11/6/2013 12:07:43 PM By Bob Braun

In this post, I continue a review of the chemical red list concept, which has been in development for building sustainability.  I will also discuss the rationale for including a chemical on a red list.  In my previous post, several specific lists were featured.

The red lists are important because manufacturers always want to use the safest chemical possible and these lists seem to make this pretty clear.  As a former formulator myself, I spent much of my career focusing on finding safer chemical solutions, while maintaining effective product performance at the same time.  Today the “green effort” has brought the use of “safe chemicals” ever more to the forefront.  In addition, green chemistry has now become part of every designer’s efforts to develop the highest level of LEED v4 certification, for example.  There are several issues to consider…

  • A chemical on a red list has shown to have serious hazardous effects
  • This judgment is based on numerous human exposure and environmental impact studies
  • This judgment is not based on the exposure potential by product category e.g. the chemical as a component of a sealant versus a drywall additive

Human exposure is complicated and there are many factors involved.  Any one chemical, for example, may be used at very small use levels in a product.  The product may also be used in small applications quantities in the building, but have a very critical function in that product performance.  And finally, the potential for human exposure may be very small.  These issues are often not considered and the placement on the red list becomes an emblem like a scarlet letter.

This is some of my takeaway from several red lists I have seen:

  • A great deal of hazard data has fueled placements on any red list
  • Much more is unknown than known related to practical hazard
  • It is a given that many more red chemicals will be added in the future
  • Some chemicals on red lists were considered safe a few decades ago
  • Transformation reaction products are often not considered
  • Many building sustainability issues related to health are not considered
  • Building sustainability related to durability is not considered
  • The quantity of the chemical used is not considered
  • Associated red list dialog is often more qualitative than quantitative

Now, it is very apparent why the conditions above obtain.  First, the expertise needed to begin this comprehensive assessment is very extensive and the use of any suspect chemical can be used in a myriad of products.  Secondly, some product uses may add great building value with very low hazard and others may not.  However, it is much easier to evaluate the toxicological literature and assess the chemical hazard level by a simpler health effects metric.

Given the above conditions, it becomes most important to not overstate or understate chemical hazard or to oversimplify the hazard by not linking the hazard to a specific product and the use of the product.  Red lists may do just that without consideration to the overall building science value.

Historically, this is the way NIOSH and OSHA looked at human exposure…and they still do.  But the inclusion of a chemical on a red list defeats these practical considerations.  It is important to consider the possible uses of any chemical and how red list inclusion might be inappropriate to good building science and thus to the consequential effects on human health!  

D’Lane Wisner of the American High Performance Building Coalition has been working 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.  I hope that this association's efforts are successful because this will greatly enhance and strengthen building sustainability and green building issues

I will go into further detail in my future posts on green chemistry and related issues. 

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