From Here to Innovation: Safer Alternatives in Building Product Materials

T. Lent, S. Drake
United States

Keywords: green chemistry, healthy materials, building products, safer alternatives


The demand for non-toxic building products is pushing manufacturers to look for alternatives to “worst offender” chemicals. While there are long lists of chemicals to avoid (California Prop 65, other governmental lists, and various “red lists”), it can be challenging for a design professional to know if a new product is actually less toxic than the original. There is an opportunity for manufacturers to innovate in their product category by embracing green chemistry to differentiate from competitors. Transparency (ingredient disclosure) in the building industry has been growing, especially with the leading green building rating system now rewarding the use of Health Product Declarations (HPDs). The HPD reports on the chemical inventory of a product, focusing on the presence of health hazards. This standard, and other similar efforts, are pushing manufacturers to disclose more information about the composition of products than ever before. Design professionals use this information to extrapolate what the risk to their client (the occupant) might be, and offer recommendations of one product over another. We will share what optimizations this industry is looking for, as it is a rapidly developing area of interest. The general public has also become aware of the “hidden dangers” lurking in their cleaning products, personal care products, and objects all around them. The uproar around the use of BPA is one example. While the relative hazards and risks of this chemical were debated at the federal level, many state and local municipalities took action with their own bans. Many manufacturers anticipated the backlash, and began offering “BPA-free” options before they were forced to via regulations. The common replacement for BPA was BPS—realized by a few in the know to be as bad or worse than the BPA it was replacing. This example underlines the major problem with substance-specific avoidance (a la red lists and the like): ban a specific substance, and a clever scientist will find its cousin—or create a new one with only a slight difference. While this often means business as usual for the manufacturer, it should be seen as a lost opportunity. This approach results in more of the same: eventually the new (same old) hazard will be realized, and customer trust will be eroded. We will identify six types of chemistry identified as “worst in class”, and how organizing efforts at this level bypasses the entire molecular whack-a-mole. Reaching for a reformulation that utilizes chemistry in a less hazardous class of substances firmly differentiates the new product from the old and offers a competitive advantage in the marketplace. A common obstacle to achieving this innovation, however, is lack of data. The Data Commons is a collaborative effort to identify substances that are hazardous to human and environmental health and find safer alternatives. It can be used to discover hazard listings, GreenScreen assessments and physicochemical information, and as a place to share relevant scientific literature, discuss emerging science and help the community address critical hazard assessment issues. Using these resources will be discussed in detail.