Tension at the Materials and Human Health Summit?

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Building Materials and Human Health

Tension at the Materials and Human Health Summit?

A report from Greenbuild 2013

This year 25,000 industry experts descended upon the Philadelphia Convention Center for a week of networking and education to discuss Building Materials and Human Health at Greenbuild 2013. I was fortunate enough to attend the Materials and Human Health Summit, an all-day event held before the official opening of Greenbuild. While the content was not new, I was happy to see the event brought manufacturers (finally) together to the table with builders, engineers and designers.

Building Materials and Human Health

Presenters at the Materials and Human Health Summit included Tom Lent (above), and Tim Cole, John Knott, Sara Greenstein, and Scot Horst (below).2013-11-19 13.50.35

For many years, building industry professionals have struggled with an adversarial relationship with certain large manufacturers and the chemical companies behind them. But I am glad to see that with the influence of leaders like Eden Brukman at the Health Product Declaration Collaborative, who coined the term “Materials Ecosystem,” the rhetoric is becoming much more cooperative and inclusive.

That said, I still felt an awkward tension at times. For instance, the corporate sponsor for the Material and Human Health Summit was BASF, a major chemical producer and member of the American Chemistry Council. The American Chemistry Council is continuing its lobbying efforts to undermine the U.S. Green Building Council, which certainly does not help build good will toward its member organizations.

A BASF representative gave a presentation during the closing session of the summit. Although many folks in the audience and on stage praised the representative’s message, my review is less glowing. A quick synopsis of his presentation: the BASF rep recently remodeled his house. He consulted materials scientists at BASF and made an “informed decision” to install spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation. (SPF is a product that BASF manufactures, but it has been in the news lately due to growing concern about its health effects.)

Now my takeaway, as a disclaimer, differs from many other audience members and the subsequent speakers who praised BASF. The message I heard was: Only materials scientists are qualified to assess health hazards associated with building materials. Or in other words: Don’t trust your architect or consultant to assess building materials and human health hazards. Trust the scientists who are paid by the chemical companies to assess risk.

We are environmental scientists at Healthy Building Science, not materials scientists. As we tell out clients, we do not provide assessments of the health risks associated with particular building products. Instead, we focus on best practices related to material hazard identification and assessment. In other words, while the chemical industry focuses on assessing risk, we take a precautionary approach to materials and identify hazards. Or, as Debbie Raphael from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control says, we ask, Do We Need It? If a product contains a non-essential hazardous ingredient, we look for alternatives that avoid the hazard.

My hope is that as the materials ecosystem embraces transparency and the precautionary principle, more project teams will adopt a hazard-avoidance approach. Rather than trying to change the way big manufacturers assess risk, we’ll all go around them, seeking less hazardous alternatives for building materials and human health.

If you attended the Summit and had a similar–or completely different–take, please leave your comments here!