Nature is toxic enough – it would seem sensible that we try to limit the amount of toxicity industry contributes. Almost nothing is completely good. But in the building industry as with much of modern life there are a dizzying array of invented chemical compounds that may provide great benefits but also deliver varying degrees of toxicity to our environment and our bodies. If we want to build true high performance buildings then the sustainability and safety of these products must be considered and so it’s ever more important that we pay attention. Greenpeace is at the forefront of calling attention to the problem and providing useful guides like their pyramid of Plastics.
In looking to make better choices – A great analogy is our food industry and the pragmatism of making a healthy diet in the face of grocery store domination by industrial interests. Like Lloyd Alter, we’re big fans of the food writer Michael Pollan, and we are happy participants of what Lloyd describes as the Pollanization of Green Building. If you haven’t read Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food” we highly recommend you do. The subtitle on the cover sets the tone: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Stay away from highly processed foods and those foods that have out-sized environmental impacts, like a beef heavy diet. We should be making more healthy choices.
With the founding of the FDA in 1906 and Clean Air Act in 1970, public policy has moved toward grappling with these issues. And the development of the Precautionary Principle – where we should resist the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown – can help guide public policy as well as personal decisions.
And while there are over 68,000 different substances listed under the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) – there are now great resources to help guide us, from the Pharos Project and Healthy Building Network to Perkins and Will’s Precautionary List, to the Living Building Institute’s Red List and Declare Labels.
Declare Labels are a particularly important initiative, while voluntary, to get the label the manufacturers must state clearly the ingredients in the building product. And like shopping in the grocery store, knowing the ingredients is the first step in forming better decisions. We are proud at 475 to participate in the Declare Label program – obtaining them for several of our cornerstone air sealing and moisture control products: INTELLO vapor intelligent and air tight membrane, TESCON VANA, PROFIL and INVIS air tight tapes and TESCON PRIMER RP. (See blog post here.) And we look forward to expanding the number of products going forward.
But too often the industrial powers that dominate the trillion dollar construction industry greenwash and worse. Like the tobacco companies testifying that smoking isn’t addictive or energy industry slogans like “clean coal” or “we couldn’t live without CO2” – we are awash in deceptive and insidious advertising, whose purpose is to get us to throw up our arms and go with the flow. And all too often the flow heads toward bad stuff.
A “great” new example of this is illustrated in the NY Times Magazine article published Jan 6, 2016 “The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare” , by Nathaniel Rich – a story of an industry defense lawyer, Rob Billot, and his unexpected turn into the vanquisher. Dupont improperly disposed of waste from the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), poisoning a whole region of West Virginia, and contributing to “…kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.” Not classified by the government as a hazardous substance Dupont was still aware of its toxic dangers. PFOA, used in Scotchguard and Teflon, was too important to Dupont’s bottom line and so it violated the Toxic Substances Control Act and buried the knowledge.
The particular chemical has been replaced. But as the article notes in May 2015, scientists issued the Madrid Statement which expressed concern about the production of all fluorochemicals – including the replacement. Safe thresholds are understood and are being crossed around the world – and so far the government still refuses to regulate them. The article notes that if you are alive, reading this you have some level of the chemicals in your blood already, and that: “Residents of Seattle; Wilmington, Del.; Colorado Springs; and Nassau County on Long Island are among those whose water has a higher concentration of fluorochemicals than that in some of the districts included in Rob Bilott’s class-action suit.”
Almost by accident this case came to light – and with this lawyer’s tenacity Dupont, fighting all the way (Dupont has still not installed water filtration systems, as agreed in the initial settlement, in affected areas ), is facing 3,533 cases, the first of which the plaintiff was awarded $1.6M. That could add up to real money.
We wonder if DOW Chemical knows? And if Dupont and DOW do merge, we wonder if DOW will install the promised filtration systems? If their purchase of Union Carbide is any answer – where they still refuse to clean the Bhopal India chemical disaster site – we should not be encouraged.
The Graduate told us that plastics is the future. The weight of industry agrees and provides all too often a Hobson’s Choice of foam, foam and foam. But as Jean-Paul Sartre declared “We are condemned to be free”. Let’s use the responsibility of our freedom to make better choices. When it comes to spray foam, we say LESS IS BEST.
Visit Pharos, and read the Red List; Make healthier choices. Use the precautionary principle. Sustainability in the construction industry can no longer be thought of as a nice amenity – it is fundamental to making high performance.