Making the Invisible Visible: A Step Toward Safer Materials

Megan Schwarzman
Once chemical ingredients and their associated hazards become visible, everyone involved—from individual consumers to people specifying large construction projects—can start making more informed choices, including choices that reflect a desire for safer materials.

As a doctor and an environmental health scientist, I field a lot of questions about how we’re affected by the chemicals that make up the materials in our everyday lives. These questions often have to do with materials used in buildings or the products that go inside them: Is it worth trying to find a couch that doesn’t contain flame-retardants? Are phthalates in vinyl flooring an issue? How about the new finish on hardware floors? Stain resistant carpeting? Blow-in insulation? In the absence of readily available information, most people probably want to just trust that someone is looking out for their safety—a highly educated friend told me she assumed her house paint was safe because she’d bought it from a hardware store in Berkeley.

But, as my colleague Marty Mulvihill described in a recent blog, in the world of products—from electronics to cosmetics to building materials—there is a lot of information on what products do, how well they perform, and their relative price, but there’s precious little about how safe they are.

How did this come to be? Mainly because of a choice made when the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976. At that time, the 62,000 chemicals that were in commercial use were assumed safe, and the law did not require chemical manufacturers to systematically investigate the possible health effects of these chemicals or the products they had on the market. As I’ve described elsewhere in detail, the EPA can request information from a manufacturer about a chemical on a case-by-case basis, but only after first establishing that the chemical poses a risk to human health or the environment—a kind of ‘Catch 22’ that has proved paralyzing for the EPA. A provision in TSCA did require chemical manufacturers to notify EPA of any new hazard they discovered, but this created a perverse incentive that tends to reward ignorance instead of continual learning and transparency; that is, if you have to report to EPA when you uncover evidence of harm, maybe it’s better not to look.

“The EPA can request information from a manufacturer about a chemical on a case-by-case basis, but only after first establishing that the chemical poses a risk to human health or the environment—a kind of ‘Catch 22’ that has proved paralyzing for the EPA.”

We’ve been paying for the mistakes embedded in TSCA for decades now. We have been left to guess what chemicals are in most products, and if we can find out the ingredients, there’s often very little publicly available information on what hazards they might pose, and what—if any—safer alternatives are available.

So how to change? We have to make the invisible visible—start reporting ingredients and any information that exists about their health and environmental effects. Because once chemical ingredients and their associated hazards become visible, everyone involved—from individual consumers to people specifying large construction projects—can start making more informed choices, including choices that reflect a desire for safer materials.

Of course, we’ve already been doing this in related areas. Measuring energy use and putting a price on it (both directly via utility bills, and indirectly by rewarding conservation) has created a market for more energy-efficient buildings and the materials that make them so. The same goes for water consumption. Earlier this year, Fresno, the largest city in California’s dry central valley reduced its water use by nearly 20%, simply by installing residential water meters and replacing a previous flat fee with a charge based on actual use. Two things are going on here: 1) measuring and reporting use—actions that change behavior even when they’re not related to economic gain or loss, and 2) charging for the actual cost of using a resource. In general, we’re more apt to conserve a resource we pay for than one we get for free.

The new LEED v4 Materials and Resources credits are an interesting first step toward making material health choices visible and incentivizing the selection of safer alternatives to hazardous building materials. Over the course of the coming year I’ll be looking at a host of issues that arise in evaluating material health and how we can make the tricky questions about the chemicals in materials a little easier to answer.

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Megan Schwarzman
USGBC Senior Research Fellow, research scientist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH), in UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, and Associate Director of Health and Environment for the interdisciplinary Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry. She earned her medical degree from the University of Massachusetts, and a master’s of public health from the University of California, Berkeley.