Eliminating harmful chemicals from a certain material or product is something we should aways strive for, however, often that chemical provides a needed function and cannot easily be eliminated or replaced with a substance that is known to be less harmful.
TRANSPARENCY ON HARMFUL CHEMICALS IS KEY
Before we can seek safer alternatives to harmful chemicals we need content transparency—or knowing what materials comprise a given product. Unfortunately, transparency is a challenging area. Frequently, manufacturers or their suppliers cite proprietary concerns or simply fail to recognize the need to disclose detailed information on component parts and chemicals.
Some content information is available through government-mandated safety data sheets (SDS), though their focus is on chemical release in the workplace or during transportation. Plus, SDSs only include substances that have been well documented to represent a health or safety risk; emerging chemicals of concern are not required to be listed. Further, low-concentration ingredients, some of which can be quite hazardous, are not listed either.
Additionally, there can be contaminants that enter the product through recycled materials, or even minerals. For example, vermiculite is a mineral that was commonly used in loose-fill insulation until problems with trace asbestos content from certain mining areas was discovered.
Even if we do know the chemical content of a product, a second challenge is figuring out how to make it safer through the substitution or elimination of a harmful chemical.
In some cases, a manufacturer is able to readily eliminate a hazardous chemical from their product. For example, in the past decade we have seen the elimination of formaldehyde in residential fiberglass insulation as new bio-binders were created. However, in other cases, modification or elimination is more difficult because it would require a fundamental redesign of the product or because a safer alternative is not known or available.
It is also important to remember that substituting one chemical for another does not mean it is safer. Often, less is known about the substituting chemical, so it may be just as harmful or more so. For example, in the 1970s, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were phased out. But replacement flame-retardants have repeatedly been found to have similar toxic effects on both humans and wildlife.
HEALTH CERTIFICATIONS FOR BUILDING PRODUCTS
Nonetheless, today more than ever a greater spotlight is being focused on material health and safety. More companies are being proactive by voluntarily releasing Health Product Declarations in which they list all or most of the chemicals in their products.
Third-party certifications—such as Cradle to Cradle, Declare or GREENGUARD—also can guide consumers, architects and contractors to healthier products. Each of these programs has different criteria on separate red lists of banned chemicals or various policies on acceptable content disclosure. They are a means to get the public more information and greater reassurance on product safety. Companies that have products with third party certifications and/or have been reviewed by healthy standards organizations have those certifications noted on their company page in the energy efficient database.
There also are listings of the specific products that have been certified and which certifications they have available for insulation and sealant products at the end of the chemical section for each of those sectors. A list of effective water filtration systems also is available.
The research for safer chemical alternatives is a slow-moving field, but one that is moving in the right direction.