Chemical Hazard Assessment: A Key Step Towards Product Optimization

Courtney Yan

USGBC’s LEED version 4 Materials & Resources Credit: Building Product Disclosure and Optimization – Material Ingredients is based on the premise that in order to promote healthier building products and materials, we must first know what ingredients go into a product, understand the impact of those ingredients, then optimize the product formulations based on that understanding. In other words, the credit is intended to put the market on a path of disclosure, assessment, and optimization.

One of the most important tools facilitating our journey down this path is the GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals, an open, transparent, publicly accessible, peer reviewed Chemical Hazard Assessment (CHA) method. In June, Dr. Lauren Heine, Co-Director of Clean Production Action and Director of the GreenScreen program, came to USGBC Headquarters to discuss the program. In her talk, “Improving Materials Selection through Chemical Hazard Assessment,” she described how GreenScreen supports better-informed, healthier material choices by helping decision makers answer key questions about the material ingredients:

  1. What do I know or don’t know about this ingredient and its impact on human health and the environment?
  2. Are alternatives available?
  3. Are those alternatives in fact safer and better for the environment and human health?
  4. Given those alternatives, how should I prioritize the different tradeoffs among them?

A full GreenScreen assessment is a detailed, systematic evaluation of a chemical based on 18 hazard endpoints. The assessment is performed by licensed profilers with demonstrated chemical and toxicological expertise. The result is a rich report that outlines in full detail the environmental and health impacts. More importantly for decision makers, the report also boils down the findings into a single hazard summary table and a simple, high-level score (Benchmark 1-4). In her talk, Dr. Heine provided several examples of corporate policies, state regulations, and materials procurement and product development guidelines based on GreenScreen to illustrate the value of the these benchmarks to identify preferable, and not just minimally acceptable, ingredients.

“In her talk, Dr. Heine provided several examples… to illustrate the value of the these benchmarks to identify preferable, and not just minimally acceptable, ingredients.”

The GreenScreen List Translator is an abbreviated version of the GreenScreen method that provides a “quick and dirty” screening for known hazards based on authoritative hazard lists. While it’s not a replacement for a full assessment, using the List Translator can tell decisions makers if an ingredient is on a compiled list of “known bads.” Knowing this, decision makers can then avoid the use of restricted ingredients and proactively phase out ingredients that risk being placed on a restricted list in the future.

By presenting hazard data in a clear and comparable summary table, defining even simpler benchmarks that can be easily communicated to suppliers and purchasers alike, and providing a decision framework that outlines how to consistently prioritize tradeoffs, GreenScreen is playing a critical role in making hazard assessments more comprehensible and accessible for decision makers. The result will be better-informed material selection, and eventually, inherently safer and healthier building products.

“GreenScreen is playing a critical role in making hazard assessments more comprehensible and accessible for decision makers.”

Through the LEED, Materials, and Health Initiative, USGBC has been advancing dialogue around the challenges and opportunities associated with material ingredient disclosure and optimization. This lecture was one in a series of events USGBC has been convening around materials and health. Resources from this event can be viewed here, and video footage from many previous events can be viewed on our YouTube channel. To be notified of future events, some of which allow remote participation, sign up here.

Courtney Yan
LEED Specialist at USGBC working on demand-side management and power system performance. Also supporting the LEED, Materials, and Health Initiative. M.S. in Sustainable Systems from the University of Michigan.