Is Hazard-Based Sustainable Product Analysis Hazardous to Your Company’s Health?

Posted on 12/11/2014 12:13:57 PM By Ujjval Vyas

There seems to be a trend towards hazard-based tools for determining environmentally preferable product choices and chemistries. I believe that hazard-based analysis cannot possibly be useful because it generally results from arbitrary and often hidden anti-scientific or pseudo-scientific activity by regulators, standards organizations, and various kinds of eco-labels and compliance tools.

Simply put, a risk-based assessment optimizes among multiple competing values such as safety, exposure, dosage, or cost to understand what type of products will provide environmental or health benefits at an acceptable level of risk.  The information for each value is tractable to analysis and the assessment can be boiled down to a simple equation (for example, the insurance industry uses the equation probability x intensity = risk). On the other hand, hazard-based assessment considers only one value without factoring in the context. The mere presence of the hazard means it should be eliminated; instead of an equation, it’s a binary switch that is always “on.”

For example, under risk-based analysis, solar photovoltaic panels have been deemed acceptable. Even though they are expensive and their MDS information makes for some scary reading, their value has an alternative energy source has been given the greater weight. Under hazard-based analysis, photovoltaics should be banned immediately because they contain gallium arsenide.

When I attend presentations by advocates of the hazard-only approach, I am struck that most of them think that this perspective is more rigorous than a risk-based approach.  This camp includes representatives from the USGBC, AIA, EPA, Healthy Building Network, or the coterie of design professional firms (HKS, Perkins + Will, and Cannon Design amongst others) clamoring to create healthy buildings.  How did they come to this view? I have located at least one source for this mistaken position and its purported validation.

In a recent document released by the EPA responding to public comments for Draft Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Voluntary Use in Federal Procurement, we find the following explanation of the category of “intrinsic hazards:”

An intrinsic hazard is the potential for harm based on the chemical structure and properties that define its ability to interact with biological molecules. Some commenters suggested that the Guidelines should take a risk-based approach instead of focusing this Guideline on intrinsic hazards. Risk assessment and hazard assessment are both useful tools that help EPA fulfill its human and environmental health protection mission. EPA uses risk assessment under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in a regulatory setting to manage chemical risks by setting levels at which exposure to a given chemical poses an acceptable risk. Risk assessment is, in effect, a regulatory floor. For the DfE [Design for the Environment] Program, a voluntary program for environmental leadership, the Agency uses hazard assessment to identify the safest chemicals that can satisfy a functional need. EPA believes this higher bar (e.g., it does not allow carcinogens, developmental and reproductive toxicants, or persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals) is appropriate for recognizing top performers in chemical safety. This approach allows the Agency to distinguish the safest products available, promotes innovation, and helps consumers and institutional purchasers quickly identify safer products. [My italics.]

This language seems to assert that a risk-based assessment is appropriate for required regulatory activity, but not for voluntary guidelines. More importantly, it is odd that the EPA believes its mission to protect the public from harm can be better served by using the less scientific hazard-only analysis. 

The core problem is that a hazard analysis must actually determine what is hazardous and what is not—a task that isn’t amenable to obvious answers and doesn’t result in productive options. Is it hazardous for parents to allow their children to eat lettuce, go to school with all the germs flying around, or get vaccinated?  No fake list of possible hazards can help parents make those decisions in any meaningful way.  Only the vast improvements in public health and pharmaceuticals—based on chemistry and biochemistry—have allowed a massive decrease in risk associated with these hazardous children’s activities. 

In the area of product environmental performance, the EPA has become dependent on various governmental and NGO lists that are based on Green Chemistry “principles” that rely on hazard-only analysis.   These principles are vague, solely aspirational, and reject any serious balancing of costs and function.  They are essentially an attempt to introduce the Precautionary Principle into the Design for the Environment program.

The hazard-based DfE language is clearly set up to demonize chemicals that can’t be demonized using the risk-based analysis.  Instead it allows blanket inclusion of chemicals of “concern” by presenting it as a preventive measure to protect human health.

A simple example shows how this kind of demonizing decreases innovation and increases overall costs to society.  Let us imagine a chemical that is currently used effectively in a building envelope application and easily passes the risk-based analysis.  It is the cheapest way to increase the overall energy efficiency of the roof assembly.  Because of market skewing resulting from the DfE eco-label and systemic purchasing preferences by federal agencies, all manufacturers abandon the cheaper option and support “innovation” by producing a substitute.  Unbeknownst to EPA regulators, if they would have allowed the market to operate without DfE labeling, this particular chemical would have been further developed into a material that was 100 times more efficient than the original product and 200 times more efficient than the substitute, at an even lower cost per square foot.  Society has been robbed of that value in both economic terms and environmental terms given the GHG savings. 

Innovation by regulation is fraught with problems, not the least of which involves the arbitrary use of agency authority to further ideological ends to the disadvantage of the aggregate good.  An agency that has little or no oversight of its vast regulatory functionaries and can permanently injure commercial interests poses difficult questions for companies that want to sell to the federal government. Aiding and abetting such agency activity will not result in the best health or environmental outcomes for the industry or the public at large.

Related Links:



Perkins + Will

Cannon Design

Draft Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Voluntary Use in Federal Procurement

DfE [Design for the Environment] Program

Opinions in this Blog do necessarily represent the views of ASC.

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