Constructive Dialogues Begin With Disclosure

Bill Walsh - September 15, 2014

Opponents of content and hazard disclosure tools such as the Pharos Project and the Health Product Declaration frequently raise concerns that this information will incite irrational panic about toxics in buildings.  In fact, to the contrary, there is a growing track record of constructive dialogues between building owners and product manufacturers that result in win-win solutions. This week, The Durst Organization, developer of the first LEED Platinum high-rise, Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, is publicly launching an ambitious multi-stakeholder engagement in New York City to “optimize the health and transparency of construction product ecosystems through material research and innovation, process improvements, policy/code evolution, and accessible education.”

The Building Product Ecosystems (BPE) project is a partnership initiated by The Durst Organization with City University of New York (CUNY) and Parsons The New School For Design.[1] A hallmark of this initiative, which includes a new healthy materials curriculum and public lecture series at Parsons this fall, are working groups in which New York real estate owner/operators discuss healthy product innovation strategies with their vendors. These groups are taking a systems thinking approach as they investigate strategies for removing hazardous flame retardants from foam insulation while maintaining fire safe buildings, and address alternatives to coal ash used as recycled content in wall board and concrete, due to lifecycle concerns about heavy metals. The building owners are seeking ways that they can help manufacturers overcome local barriers to healthy product innovation.  For example, the wallboard working group is exploring a closed-loop wallboard recycling economy for the NYC metro area, and the concrete working group is working to create new avenues for utilizing the city’s glut of recycled, post-consumer glass.

We know that this type of customer-driven innovation works to create healthier products. The Bullitt Foundation and Prosoco, Inc. have publicly celebrated their collaboration on Seattle’s Bullitt Center, the world’s largest Living Building, which resulted in the removal of phthalates from Prosoco’s liquid-applied air and water barrier. Indeed a recent analysis by my colleagues at HBN concluded that non-phthalate plasticizers that are now being phased in to many flexible vinyl products are a positive advance, avoiding the asthma and endocrine-disrupting hazards of the phthalates they replace. No regulations have been passed to restrict phthalate use in building products. Informed customers drove this change.

It is still too early to calculate the total impact of replacing phthalates in vinyl materials, or to know exactly what the outcomes of the BPE project will be.  But we have a growing body of evidence documenting positive societal impacts from reducing hazardous substances in building products. The move to no-added formaldehyde engineered wood products has produced a 50% drop in emissions of formaldehyde, a human carcinogen, from manufacturing facilities. This benefits not only building occupants, but also construction workers, manufacturing workers and the communities that are home to these factories. The phase-out of arsenic in many pressure-treated wood applications led to a dramatic drop in US arsenic use, greater than 15,000 metric tons annually, much of which was ultimately headed to our watersheds as pressure-treated wood degrades over time. 

The BPE project public lectures will expand the discussion and be live-streamed.  The first public lecture on September 17th will feature an unprecedented dialogue between Dr. Phil Landrigan, an internationally recognized expert on the impacts of toxic chemicals on child development; Dr. John Warner, a founder of the green chemistry movement; and Gavin McIntyre, a founder of Ecovative, a naturally flame resistant, mycelium-based replacement for many applications of polystyrene including one day, we hope, board insulation.  Two more lectures later this fall will feature Dr. Arlene Blum discussing the growing movement away from toxic flame retardants that do not increase fire safety in buildings, and one of the nation’s most influential healthcare architects, Robin Guenther, FAIA, expanding upon her September 2014 TEDMED talk.

Tune in and witness for yourself the constructive dialogues that begin with disclosure!

To live stream the Building Product Ecosystem lecture on September 17th, visit this link.  If you would like to attend the lecture in person, register here.  For information on upcoming public lectures, follow us on Twitter.


[1] The Healthy Building Network and Vidaris consultants are advising partners to the Building Product Ecosystems project.  HBN Executive Director Bill Walsh is co-teaching the BPE course at Parsons The New School For Design as a visiting professor.


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