Moving The Market: Healthy Building Materials for a Better World

A Healthy Building Materials History Lesson

With the onset of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, lead became a widely used material not only in the workplace, but in the form of house paint as well. It became a public health disaster. Reaching pandemic proportions, lead exposure caused brain damage, kidney failure, anemia and, not uncommonly, death. Fetal exposure caused stillbirths, miscarriages and neurological developmental stunting. While the harmful effects of lead were widespread, those at particular risk were children and manual labor workers, for children are adversely affected at lower levels of exposure, and those in the lead-saturated industries were exposed in higher levels and over a longer period of time.

The 20th century saw an increase in lead exposure on a global scale due to metal-manufacturing practices, as well as the use of lead as a staple additive to gasoline. These levels have taken a steep dive since the 1980s, when leaded gasoline began to be phased out, but exhaust from this era left its mark in the form of tainted soil and building dust.

In spite of the far-reaching effects of lead, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the United States passed a ban on the use of lead in house paint, and even then there was a seven-year delay until it was phased out of the market entirely. The tale of lead paint illustrates how using harmful chemicals can easily become standard practice in manufacturing. It also shows how reactive legislation–initiatives that strive for damage control after the fact–fail to alleviate the persisting health and environmental hazards even after the materials are removed from circulation in the market.

Proactive Approach à la Living Building Challenge Materials Petal

This phenomenon is not exclusive to lead; today there is a comprehensive list of harmful chemicals called the “Red List.” Developed the the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), it comprises chemicals that have been found to threaten human health and well-being and should not be included in buildings attempting to meet materials criteria of ILFI’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification process. The Red List also encompasses established chemical lists such as RoHS, REACH, Pharos, Healthy Product Declaration, Green Ideas Green Action, Building Green and Declare. The aim of the LBC “materials petal” is to promote a more dynamic and preventative approach, to reduce and eliminate the circulation of harmful Red List chemicals in the building market, before they can begin to do lasting damage our bodies and our world.

Creating Demand for Healthy Products

Frightening examples are abound of the dangers of toxic chemicals in building materials. Sustainable design and eco-friendly building materials may leave a hopeful gleam in the eyes of environmentalists, and indeed other green building standards like LEED and Passive House have advanced the cause. However, what’s been sorely lacking is a solid framework that transforms the built environment and the building materials industry at the same time.

Declare is a product ‘nutrition label’, offering a clear and informative method to disclose 100% of chemical ingredients. Declare provides a marketing advantage, because such products enjoy preferential access to Living Building projects. Every Living Building must contain at least one Declare product per 500 square meters of building area. Since the inception of the Living Building Challenge, there have been more than 70 interactions between Integrated Eco Strategy and manufacturers that have prompted a change in company products or policies. Responses from manufacturers have included implementing new policies regarding ingredient transparency and reformulations of products to remove Red List chemicals. Along with this, four manufacturers made the decision to list their products in the Declare Program after our outreach to them.

By selecting only Red List-compliant products in Living Building Challenge projects, design teams become engines of market change by motivating manufacturers to make healthier products, and educating a growing sector of the building industry about the dangers of Red List chemicals. A key component of the Living Building Challenge standard is to drive manufacturers to produce products that both preserve and protect the environment, and do not negatively impact human health. Our aim as members of the International Living Future Institute is to help raise the bar in the built environment with Living Buildings and make healthy building materials more accessible to the public; one product, one phone call at a time.