Standardization and Classification: Two Pieces of the Safer Materials Puzzle

David Marcus

Increasing transparency and scientific understanding around the health impacts of building materials is unquestionably a timely and complex topic. The growing number of chemicals and products in the marketplace brings a deluge of new information and opportunities, but with it even more questions – what are the ingredients in these products and how do they affect human and environmental health?

In some cases it’s difficult to answer these questions due to a lack of scientific data and supply chain understanding. In other cases, the answers are out there, but issues like intellectual property concerns prevent us from accessing them. While a host of organizations, labeling schemes, and policies have attempted to distill the information we do have, the sheer number of these tools and the science and alphabet soup of abbreviations that comes with them can be confusing and frustrating.

As part of our 2014 Materials and Health event series, USGBC is bringing together thought leaders and experts to help address these questions and make sense of this complex universe.  Two events we showcased in April provide particularly good examples of industry tools and methods designed to streamline information and lead to better chemical and material choices.

The first event, in partnership with the Green Science Policy Institute, was titled, “Healthy Buildings: Reducing the Use of Flame Retardants and the ‘Six Classes’ of Harmful Chemicals.” This lecture featured Arlene Blum, Ph.D. discussing the science and policy of flame retardant chemicals, the national health impacts of California’s changing flammability standards, and her work focusing on six families of chemicals that comprise some of the most hazardous on the market today.

Rather than addressing the more than 80,000 U.S.-registered chemicals on the market one at a time, Arlene and her colleagues organize chemicals of concern into families, and are focusing on six classes that include many of the most harmful substances in consumer products and building materials. This approach helps reveal the potential health hazards of chemicals that have not been adequately tested and evaluated by recognizing that chemicals in the same family often have similar toxicological effects. At, this class approach is used to educate decision makers in manufacturing, retail, and government; explore safer green chemistry alternatives; and help prevent regrettable substitutions, in which a toxic chemical is replaced by a chemical cousin with similar harmful properties.

Watch Arlene’s entire lecture here.

The second event, in partnership with the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC), was titled, “The Importance of Material Disclosure and Transparency for the Future Health of the Built Environment: A Community Developer’s Perspective.” This lecture featured John Knott, the Executive Director of HPDC, sharing his perspective on the importance of material disclosure and transparency in the built environment to ensuring human and ecological health.

John covered the key elements and goals of HPDC and the organization’s role as an integrator and collaborator. He also spoke to HPDC’s mission to cultivate a global ingredient disclosure ecosystem by advancing the use of the free Health Product Declaration (HPD) as a standard reporting format for product content and associated health information for building products and materials.

Watch John’s entire lecture here.

Conventionally, the early stages of product development involve selecting certain materials for their aesthetic and performance qualities. USGBC seeks to include health as a metric in this equation by including health language in LEED credits and leveraging our LEED, Materials, and Health Initiative to promote the work of organizations like the Green Science Policy Institute and HPDC.

Both organizations are making advances towards providing manufacturers and specifiers with valuable, clear, and straightforward frameworks that can be used to improve building material design and selection. HPDC speaks to one piece of the puzzle by promoting ingredient transparency through a standard format that simplifies reporting material ingredients and their known health impacts. The Green Science Policy Institute’s classification system addresses a complementary piece of the puzzle by simplifying chemicals into a manageable number of families that help us better understand their health effects in the absence of missing scientific data and more easily select safer chemicals in the initial stages of product development.

The relationship between ingredient transparency and scientific understanding of those ingredient’s health impacts is at the core of optimizing healthy buildings through safer materials. Ideally, in a world of total supply chain transparency and scientific understanding, product declarations such as the HPD would contain complete information about chemicals and their associated health impacts, and selecting products and materials that perform well across all aesthetic, performance and health metrics would be straightforward.

LEED v4 can be a catalyst for this market change. Safer chemical policy initiatives are starting to gain momentum, and examples abroad like the European Union’s REACH regulations demonstrate a global drive to improve the health impacts of our products. As the supply chain starts to recognize health as an important metric of product and building performance, tools like the SixClasses framework and the HPD will simplify and standardize interactions with a growing body of information, increase transparency, elucidate health impacts, and take us one step closer to realizing our vision of a healthy, vibrant, enabling materials marketplace, accessible to all.

David Marcus
USGBC LEED Coordinator working on education, materials and health, and LEED v4. M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from the Johns Hopkins University.