The Signal: News & Notes from the Pharos Team


Made in the USA: A Healthy Choice for Ceramic Tiles

Jim Vallette - April 2, 2014

When purchasing ceramic wall or flooring tiles, focus on products made in the USA.  Not only will you help staunch the exodus of the ceramic tile industry to other continents, you will probably avoid bringing toxic heavy metals into your building project. That is the main conclusion from our research into the ceramic tile industry, which culminated in this week’s opening of our newest category of product evaluations.  The Pharos building product database provides in-depth and product-specific analysis of the vast majority of floorings, including carpet, solid wood, engineered wood, rubber (natural and synthetic), vinyl, cork, polyolefin, and now ceramic tile flooring. Transparency in the tile industry is on the increase, but full disclosure of material contents remains rare. The lack of specifics about some key ingredients – especially tile glazes and processing additives  -- required us, as with every category we have researched since 2009 -- to d...

State Seeking Safer Paint Strippers, Sleep Pads, and Spray Foam

Tom Lent - March 13, 2014

“Is it necessary?” That’s the key question the State of California is asking about chemicals in consumer products that are known to cause serious harm to people or the environment. The state took a small but very significant step today in its Safer Consumer Product program, identifying the first three product-chemical combinations they plan to evaluate for regulation. Two are actively used in construction. There are compelling cases for getting rid of each of them: Methylene chloride in strippers used on paint and varnish and surface cleaners. Methylene chloride metabolizes to carbon monoxide in the body and has killed at least fourteen bathtub refinishers since 2000 as well as being a carcinogen. Alternative products are available in the marketplace now. The flame retardant chlorinated tris (TDCPP) in children’s foam sleeping mats. Chlorinated tris is a known carcinogen that was banned from kids pajamas in the 70s but nonetheless continues to b...

Dust in the Wind: EPA’s Vacuous Review of Coal Waste in Building Products

Jim Vallette - February 28, 2014

The EPA’s ongoing review of coal combustion wastes’ regulatory status would seem like a great opportunity to explore essential questions about the safety of bringing coal wastes into a wide range of interior building materials. But, any hopes for that kind of investigation crashed to earth with the EPA’s new report, Coal Combustion Residual Beneficial Use Evaluation: Fly Ash Concrete and FGD Gypsum Wallboard (February 2014). Instead, the report signals a return to the agency’s longstanding role as cheerleader for the coal ash industry.  In 2010, the EPA Inspector General said the agency needed to reconsider its promotion of coal power waste reuse, and get some facts. "We determined that risk information on EPA’s Coal Combustion Products Partnership website was incomplete, and that information on the website appeared to inappropriately endorse commercial products," wrote Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. In response, rather than ...

Asthmagen FAQ: Pharos users continue the discussion

Sarah Lott - January 30, 2014

Last month, the Pharos research team released a Healthy Building Network (HBN) report on asthmagens in building materials titled Full Disclosure Required: a Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection. Since then,  Signal readers have raised some great questions about our report and the HBN priority asthmagens filter that we added to the Pharos Project Building Product Library at Greenbuild last November: Aren’t there other more conventional triggers for asthma than chemicals from building materials? Public health agencies often report dust, pet dander, environmental air pollution, tobacco smoke, respiratory infections, mold, exercise, and stress as common triggers of asthma attacks. However, it is currently unclear how much of a role these triggers play in the physiological changes that bring about asthma, or whether they simply incite an asthma attack in those who already suffer from the condition.  Immunological and epigenetic mechanisms ...

West Virginia Chemical Leak Demonstrates Need for Disclosure

Tom Lent - January 24, 2014

The steadily unfolding disaster in West Virginia, makes painfully clear why transparency is so important. About two weeks ago, a coal-processing chemical leaked into the Elk River, tainting the drinking water for 300,000 people. Initially the company at fault - a firm with the ironic name of Freedom Industries – reported that the leaking chemical was MCHM, calculations were done and health officials determined that the water was too hazardous to consume – or even bathe in. Twelve days later, just as levels are supposedly returning below the thresholds the health officials calculate to be safe (albeit with sadly inadequate scientific data) it has been revealed that there is a second previously undisclosed chemical involved. What is it? Believe it or not, the MSDS provided by Freedom Industries to explain the situation indicates it is made up of entirely 100% proprietary ingredients and only a lot of sleuthing has triangulated what it might be. The MSDS has other wonderful...

Looking Back at Pharos in 2013

Melissa Coffin - January 7, 2014

As we begin a fresh first quarter in a new year, we thought it would be good to take a few minutes to recognize our efforts in the year that’s just passed.  Indeed, 2013 was a busy year for the Pharos Building Products Library (BPL). All told, in 2013, we added 399 new products and product components to the BPL.  The Carpets and Standard Paints categories saw the biggest increases, but records were added to every product category in the system. Thirteen new Common Ingredient records were created, presenting standard chemistries and associated health hazards for silicone adhesives, various additives for plastics, vinyl composition tiles, and methyl methacrylate resins to name a few.  There are now over 50 Common Ingredient records in the BPL, providing Pharos subscribers with insights into many products and components where transparency about specific ingredients is typically hard to find. Many of these Common Ingredient records were created in suppor...

Looking Forward to 2014: Growing the Built Environment

Sarah Lott - January 6, 2014

Thinking back on this last year we added a lot of new products to Pharos (approximately 400!).  As I think about all of the new products and different types of materials we might add to Pharos in 2014, an exciting and innovative new building material comes to mind: mycelium. Mycelium is the root-like part of a mushroom or other fungi which “eats” plant material through the secretion of enzymes to decompose plant material and absorb nutrients. Mycelia in the natural environment are not only important for decomposing organic materials and making nutrients available in soil ecosystems, but are also key components of soil structure because they bind soil particles together, forming a large, sticky web. I first learned that mycelium could be grown into building materials at Greenbuild this past November, where the New York based company Ecovative showcased their latest building products: Myco Foam Insulation and Myco Board. Myco Foam Insulation is a natural, ...

Full Disclosure Required: a Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection.

Sarah Lott - December 11, 2013

Nearly 26 million people in the United States are affected by chronic asthma, including over eight million children. This number has been on the rise since at least 1980, despite the abundance of programs to reduce outdoor and indoor air pollutants, like tobacco smoke and smog, which have long been linked to asthma. People spend the vast majority of their time indoors, surrounded by building materials. Recent reports – such as a 2012 Perkins +Will / National Institutes of Health collaboration – have established that building materials contain asthma-causing chemicals. But generally, the walls and floors and ceilings that surround us most of our lives are under-explored potential contributors to the asthma epidemic. Building materials contain chemicals, known as asthmagens, that not only trigger the symptoms of asthma, but actually cause the development of asthma disease.  Earlier this year, the Healthy Building Network (HBN) took an in-depth look at how perv...

Sacred Space in Houston

Bill Walsh - November 26, 2013

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit the first Living Building Challenge (LBC) project in Houston, TX, and that is not its most compelling distinction.  The 1,120 square foot stand-alone art building at the Monarch School is maximizing the use of reclaimed materials, and minimizing the use of hazardous “red list” substances.  As I spoke with the design and construction team, I was struck by their sense of reverence for the contribution they were making to this campus, which serves 127 students with autism, attention deficit disorder and other neurological challenges.  The team is well aware that the National Institutes of Health have said that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, one of the hazards targeted by the LBC red list  “may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse… neurological, and immune effects.”  As I walked across the campus past classroom after classroom of engaged students,...

New Pharos Features Unveiled at Greenbuild

Jim Vallette - November 21, 2013

This week at Greenbuild, the Pharos Project released a new set of powerful tools for our subscribers.  These features include filters for LEED v4 Materials Credits, a filter to identify products free of priority asthmagens, GreenScreen Benchmarks for every product and chemical in our libraries, and the addition of Health Product Declarations (HPDs) to the Pharos Building Product Library (BPL). • LEED v4 Materials Credits Filter LEED v4, approved this year by ballot, includes a new Building Product Disclosure and Optimization credit (MRc4).  This credit rewards inventories of product contents, the screening of contents against authoritative hazard lists and full assessments of health impacts. The Pharos filters screen out products that do not meet the credit criteria.  The material ingredient reporting option can be met by providing a complete content inventory through Pharos (requires a Credit Interpretation Ruling), full disclosure through an HPD, or...