It’s Time To Rethink Recycling

Jim Vallette - October 10, 2014

by Wes Sullens and Jim Vallette Recycling is a deeply embedded principle of green building.  From the beginning of LEED®, recycling has stood by itself as an important attribute of material and waste management credits. These credits, in turn, fueled a huge increase in recycled content in many building materials, from wallboard to concrete to carpet to construction fill. The status quo is about to change.  The green building movement is in the midst of a quantum leap in understanding, during which the collection of information through transparency tools is paramount. Product ingredient data -- collected by systems like the Health Product Declaration, the Pharos Project, Declare and Environmental Product Declarations -- informs the new multi-attribute assessment structure into which LEED® Version 4 and green building in general are moving. The single attribute of recycled content is not necessarily enough anymore. In other words, the more we learn, the m...

Cracking the (Building) Code on Flame Retardants

Melissa Coffin - September 18, 2014

Halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) used in building materials and their breakdown products can be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.  As such, they appear on restriction lists used by many in the green building community, including the Living Building Challenge Red List and the Perkins+Will Precautionary List.   Beyond their environmental or health characteristics, discussion is growing about whether HFRs, or any flame retardant additive, even provide any benefit in a fire in the first place. [1, 2, 3] While the debate boils over, many US building codes require high resistance to flame even for materials like insulation that are behind thermal barriers and that will have little or no exposure to a fire.  This requires foam insulation manufacturers to add HFRs or other flame retardants to all of their products. [4] Those seeking to avoid these additives can choose inherently flame-retardant insulation, such as fiberglass and mineral fiberboard, but there...

Pharos Tackles Sanitary Ware

Melissa Coffin - August 5, 2014

Building on our review of ceramic and porcelain tiles earlier this year, the Pharos team has added a Sanitary Ware category to our building product library.   Flushometers, toilets, tanks, and toilet seats now appear in Pharos. This was an interesting experience for us – trying to decipher the material composition of a class of products described only very generally: “vitreous china”, “stain resistant glaze”, or “plastic”.  It seems that ingredient disclosure isn’t a conversation that’s been happening in this sector.  While some products may contain a small amount of recycled content, the primary environmental concern in the industry has been, appropriately so, on water conservation. Our review of these products uncovered some materials of concern. First: antimicrobials.  As might be expected in a product category where cleanliness is prized, toilets and toilet seats commonly contain antimicro...

One Tiny Problem with Mortar & Grout: Nanosilver

Melissa Coffin - May 19, 2014

When we opened a Pharos product category for Ceramic Tiles last month, the mortars and grouts required to install them were a bit of an afterthought: essentially cement, we assumed, adding these products to Pharos would be a snap.  As it happens, we were wrong on both counts.  Far from just cement, there is a wide range of chemistries used to formulate mortars and grouts, each unique in the ingredients and additives required… except for one tiny exception: our research found that silver- and nanosilver-based antimicrobials are virtually standard issue in mortars and grouts. Our review of cementitious, epoxy, and urethane mortars and grouts led us through countless technical data sheets, MSDSs, and product brochures, and the majority of grouting products (and some mortars that can also be used as grout) market formulations with antimicrobial/mold resistant/mildew resistant additives.  This makes sense, of course, since grouts are on the surfaces of floors an...

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...