Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.

A path towards planetary health is more urgently needed now than ever, but our current materials economy creates rampant pollution, climate change, and growing inequity. Shifting from harmful practices to healthful solutions will require cross-sector partnerships, holistic thinking, and exciting new approaches that reduce the burden of industry on people and our planet. 

Watch Habitable’s special Earth Month webinar featuring leading global voices, including:

  • Dr. Bethanie Carney-Almroth
  • Dr. Veena Singla
  • Martha Lewis

Moderated by Gina Ciganik, CEO of Habitable

In this article, journalists investigate the American Chemistry Council’s promotion of chemical recycling, contrasting it with environmentalists’ concerns and highlighting issues found at Braven Environmental’s facility, suggesting that chemical recycling may not be as environmentally friendly or commercially viable as claimed.

Who do you think would win at the sustainability tug-o-war? Team safer materials or team low-carbon products?

Healthy Building Network (HBN) has often heard these two issues framed as a competition–a false choice. Instead, we know that these two powerhouses must work together for optimal results.

In 2022, HBN and Perkins & Will published a study highlighting building products that can do just that: optimize material health and lower their carbon footprint. This study identified key drivers and paths towards low embodied carbon and safer materials as well as when to consider and optimize both at the same time. To illustrate this point, we plotted an actionable path for project teams using flooring products as an example.

Team Low-Carbon Products: The embodied carbon of building materials contribute a whopping 11% to global carbon emissions.1 Most of these emissions happen before that product even gets installed. Additionally, the poorest countries and regions are those most impacted in terms of damage and loss of life by the effects of climate change.2 “That 11% might sound small compared with the impact of operational energy (28%), but for new construction, embodied carbon matters just as much as energy efficiency and renewables. That’s because the emissions we produce between now and 2050 will determine whether we meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord and prevent the worst effects of climate change,” explains a BuildingGreen report

Team Safer Materials: We spend 90% of our time indoors, and hundreds of industrial chemicals are found in our indoor spaces— in the dust, in the air we breathe, and in our bodies.3 The health impact of building materials are not limited to their time in use in the building, they often occur during manufacturing, installation, and at the product’s end of life. People living in close proximity to industrial facilities experience persistently worse air quality than average and exposure to industrial pollutants disproportionately impacts people of color.4 Another report suggests man-made pollution has exceeded the Earth’s safe operating boundaries.5 “Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries.” Professor Will Steffen, researcher at the Centre and the Australian National University, Canberra.6

Reducing toxic chemical use and the emissions associated with building materials NOW is a vital sustainability strategy for any project team.

The Research: 

To identify the key drivers of embodied carbon and the key opportunities to reduce embodied carbon for each product type we read Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), reviewed literature and data compilations, and conducted manufacturer interviews. The hazards associated with flooring products, the chemicals used to make those materials and the hazards associated with the chemicals used to install those products were collected using InformedTM product guidance and hazard data in the Pharos database

Embodied Carbon:

 Our research concluded that flooring products’ embodied carbon impacts are mostly associated with the raw material supply. The biggest opportunities to reduce embodied carbon in flooring comes from choosing a different product type that uses less impactful raw materials as well as products with longer service life. Carpet was consistently the most impactful product type due in part to its short service life. Plant-based flooring products, such as wood and natural cork, were consistently the least impactful.

Material Health:

 Not surprisingly, the biggest opportunities to avoid chemicals of concern in flooring come from choosing a product type with typically fewer chemicals of concern. Products made from plastic, such as vinyl, nylon, or polyurethane tend to use more hazardous chemicals during manufacturing, installation, use, and end of life, than mineral or plant-based products. Selecting a product that is yellow or above in InformedTM color ranking Flooring Guidance, such as wood or linoleum, or even a non-vinyl resilient flooring will minimize the use of hazardous chemicals. Products in the red zone such as vinyl and carpet, should be avoided.

Conclusion: 

When we looked at the opportunities to improve embodied carbon and improve material health for flooring we found that they were largely complementary.

  • Use flooring with a long service life. Avoid products with a short service life, like carpet, and select a product with a long service life, like wood. 
  • Choose biobased product types. Linoleum, wood, and cork are all flooring product types that were identified as both resulting in lower embodied carbon and safer in terms of material health. 
  • If you must use carpet, avoid use of virgin nylon carpet product types. While carpet generally can contain more chemicals of concern than other product types, carpet made with virgin nylon as a generic product type was identified as having the highest embodied carbon within the flooring category. 
  • Use circular and safe materials. Use recycled content from known sources. Prefer products that have been tested for these chemicals and have below detectable levels or below levels that would be found in virgin resin content for these materials. 

These findings highlight the importance of pre-emptive design.  Parallel to the way we conduct early modeling for energy or water use, the industry needs to model for embodied carbon and material health. A materials modeling approach–where the entire team is engaged early – before design development or construction development – will enable educated decisions before the design is set.  Use HBN’s Embodied Carbon and Material health in Flooring and Drywall report and tools like InformedTM and the Carbon Smart Materials Palette to select typically healthier, low-carbon building product options.

SOURCES

  1. Architecture 2030. “Why the Building Sector?” https://architecture2030.org/why-the-building-sector/
  2. United Nations. “The Sustainability Development Goals Report 2019”. 2019. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2019/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2019.pdf
  3. Goodman, S. “Tests find more than 200 chemicals in newborn umbilical cord blood”. Scientific American. December 2, 2009. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/newborn-babies-chemicals-exposure-bpa/ Environmental Science Technology. “Consumer Product Chemicals in Indoor Dust: A Quantitative Meta-Analysis of U.S. Studies”. 2016. 50, 19, 10661-10672. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.6b02023
  4. Chandra, A. et al. “Building a National culture of health. Background, action framework, measures, and next steps. RAND Corporation. 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1199.html
  5. Persson, L. Et al. “Outside the safe operating space of the planetary boundary for novel entities” Environmental Science and Technology. 56. 5. 1510-1521. 2022. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.1c04158
  6. United Nations. “Scientists Say Planetary Boundaries Crossed.” 2015. https://unfccc.int/news/scientists-say-planetary-boundaries-crossed 

The idea of a “plastic building” might bring to mind Barbie DreamHouses or Lego towers, but probably not the real life spaces we occupy every day. However, plastics have a long history of use in construction and are increasingly being used in a wide variety of building products.

 

What are plastics?

Plastics are synthetic or semi-synthetic materials typically made from fossil fuels and their byproducts.1 Depending on the plastic’s intended use, they may also be combined with a variety of additives such as stabilizers, fillers, reinforcements, plasticizers, colorants, and processing aids, many of which are toxic chemicals that are linked to chronic disease. They are a material of choice in the built environment, however, they come with a host of deeply rooted problems.

Durable plastics are the new “frontier”

As the energy sector shifts away from fossil fuels, the fossil fuel industry has turned toward plastics as a way of maintaining demand for their products.2 An International Energy Report from 2018 showed that petrochemicals, which are used to make plastics, are slated to become the largest driver of global oil demand in the near future.3 Historically, much of the investment has been in single-use plastics, which are increasingly the focus of bans, restrictions, regulations, and product innovation due to their harmful environmental effects.2 To pick up this anticipated slack, petrochemical, fossil fuel, and plastics industries are now pushing to increase their market growth in more durable goods, like building materials.4 The building and construction industry is already the second largest consumer of plastics after packaging.5 

Plastics contribute to climate change

Plastics contribute to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of their lifecycle. Greenhouse gases are released during fossil fuel extraction, transport, feedstock refining, and plastic manufacture, and carbon is released into the atmosphere through degradation and incineration at plastic products’ end of life.6 A 2019 Center for International Environmental Law report concluded that these lifecycle emissions may make it impossible to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees if growth continues as projected.6 Any comprehensive climate change plan must curb the production of plastics.

Plastic is ubiquitous in buildings

Maybe you know that vinyl flooring is plastic, but did you know that latex paint is mostly plastic? That many insulation products are plastic? How about carpet? Plastic-containing products can be found in almost every part of a building, from the waterproofing on foundations to roofing materials. See below for an infographic showing just some of the plastic materials in an average home. The products included are not exhaustive, but rather a list of example product types from Habitable’s InformedTM product categories where a main component is plastic. There are many more products that are predominantly made of plastic, and even more that contain smaller amounts of plastic additives or plastic binders.

Our plastic buildings are driving the growth in fossil fuels at the same time as we are diligently working to incorporate clean energy solutions and decarbonize these very same places. 

Hidden costs of cheap plastic

Plastic products are often favored due to their “low cost.”  This low retail cost is achieved by avoiding and externalizing the costs of fossil fuels and industrial pollution – and their related chronic diseases – throughout the plastics supply chain. These externalized costs are real and paid for by the BIPOC and low-income communities across the nation who are disproportionately burdened with toxic pollution flowing from refineries, chemical manufacturing, and plastics plants. It is fair to say that most of the stories about environmental justice that you have heard can be linked to plastics manufacturing.

Where is the plastic in my building?

With the building and construction industries anticipating growth over the next several years,7 commensurate growth is to be expected in their use of plastics. Indeed, market trends and projections show a steady increase in polyvinyl chloride (aka vinyl), polystyrene, polyethylene, polyurethanes, and other plastics used in building materials.8

It is, of course, unrealistic to avoid all plastic in building materials at this time, but there are steps we can take to reduce plastic waste, decrease toxic chemical use, and curb the demand for fossil fuels. 

Select Better: Avoid worst-in-class plastics where possible. 

  • Where product performance and chemical hazards are similar or better, non-plastic products are preferred.
  • Not all plastic products are the same when it comes to impacts. Where plastic products are needed, avoid halogenated plastics or plastics reliant on halogenated chemistry during production – such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC, also known as vinyl) and epoxy-based materials. 
  • Where plastic products are needed, avoiding virgin plastic materials reduces demand for oil and gas extraction and ultimately mitigates harmful end of life scenarios for the plastic waste such as incineration or landfilling.

Prioritize Transparency: Prefer products that provide transparency 

  • Disclosure of product content including the type of plastic used and any potential additives will allow for healthier materials choices and better material end-of-life planning.
  • In the case of products containing recycled plastics, disclosure of where the recycled content originated and any additives that may be present is crucial in selecting healthier products.

Aim for Circularity: Select products designed for recycling.

  • Where possible, incorporating recyclable building materials in ways that allow for end-of-life recycling is preferred.
  • Prefer products with “take back” programs. Because true plastics recycling rates are abysmal, the most promising recycling programs are those in which manufacturers retain responsibility for their products and provide recycling options. 
  • Prefer products that are made with high levels of recycled content that has been screened to avoid toxic tag-alongs and, equally as important, contact manufacturers to recycle any existing product.

With all of these plastic products, our buildings may seem increasingly like Barbie’s DreamHouse and a climate nightmare, but as specifiers, designers, architects, contractors, and owners we can do much to control what products end up in our projects. Starting with the recommendations above, we have the power to influence demand for better and safer materials. In the case of plastics, choosing better materials can lead to less reliance on fossil fuels, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in toxic chemical use, and a win for our changing climate.

If we are to have any chance of addressing the global plastics crisis, Polyvinyl Chloride plastic (PVC) also known as vinyl, has got to go.

It cannot be produced sustainably or equitably. It cannot be “optimized.” It cannot be recycled. It will never find a place in a circular economy, and it makes it harder to achieve circularity with other materials, including other plastics.

There are three reasons for this: technical, economic, and behavioral. The inherent qualities of PVC and its cousin, CPVC, make it among the most technologically challenging plastics to recycle. Like most plastics, PVC is made with fossil fuel feedstocks. Unlike other plastics, PVC/vinyl also contains substantial amounts of chlorine, upwards of 40%. This is the C in PVC, and this chlorine content adds an additional layer of negative impacts to the earth and its people, social inequity, and an impediment to recycling that cannot be overcome. Recyclers consider it a contaminant to other plastic feedstock streams.1 It mucks up the machines and the already perilous economics of plastics recycling.

There is an emerging global consensus on this point, albeit euphemistically stated. The Ellen MacArthur New Plastics Economy Project consists of representatives from the world’s largest plastic makers and users, along with governments, academics, and NGOs. In 2017 it reached the conclusion that PVC was an “uncommon” plastic that was unlikely to be recycled and should be avoided in favor of other more recyclable packaging materials.2 “Uncommon” in the diplomatic parlance of international multistakeholder initiatives means unrecyclable. The project also took note of the many toxic emissions associated with PVC production.

That’s not surprising since after 30 years of hollow promises and pilot projects doomed to fail, virtually no post-consumer PVC is recycled.3 Conversely, leading brands with forward-looking materials policies such such as Nike, Apple, and Google have prioritized PVC phase outs.4

But in the building industry, PVC rages on. Virgin vinyl LVT flooring is the fastest growing product in the flooring sector. So much so that in 2017 sustainability leader Interface introduced a new product line of virgin vinyl LVT, despite forecasting just one year before that by 2020 the company would “source 95 percent of its materials from recycled or biobased resources.”5

The current flooring market demands the impossible – aesthetic qualities and durability at a price unmatchable by non-vinyl floor coverings. A price that is unmatchable because at every stage of vinyl production, the societal costs of its poisonous environmental health consequences are externalized, subsidized, paid for by the people who live in communities that have become virtual poster children for environmental injustice and oppression. Places like Mossville, LA; Freeport, TX; and the Xinjiang Province in China, home to the oppressed Uighur population. As we detail in our exhaustive Chlorine and Building Materials report, the unique chlorine component of PVC plastic contributes to a range of toxic pollution problems starting with the fact that chlorine production relies upon either mercury-, asbestos-, or PFAS-based processes. This is in addition to the onerous environmental health burdens of petrochemical processing that burden all plastics.

It is true that all plastics contribute to environmental injustices. Virtually all plastics are made from fossil fuel feedstocks, and all plastics share abysmally low recovery and cycling rates. Still, independent experts agree that some plastics are worse than others, and PVC is among the worst.6 Additionally, most uses of PVC have readily available alternatives or solutions that are within reach. Certainly there are non-PVC alternatives for flooring. What can’t be beat is the cost – that is, the low purchase price at the point of sale, subsidized by the sacrifices we ignore in the communities where the plastics are manufactured and the waste is dealt with. And BIPOC communities bear the disproportionate burden of it all. Acknowledging and addressing this tradeoff is at the root of the behavioral change that stands between us and a just and healthy circular economy.

In his influential book How To Be An Antiracist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi argues that if we recognize we live in a society with many racial inequities – and acknowledge that since no racial group is inferior or superior to another, the cause of these inequities are policies and practices – then to be anti-racist is to challenge those policies and practices where we can and create new ones that create equity and justice for all.

Imagine if as part of our commitment to equity in our sustainability efforts, we recognized, acknowledged, and did what we could to address the racial inequities associated with PVC production, and committed right now to stop using PVC unless it was absolutely essential. The plastics industry would howl and point out inconsistencies, question priorities, highlight unintended consequences. We would all feel a tinge of whataboutism – what about carbon, or this other injustice, or that shortcoming of the alternatives. But it is clear that widespread incrementalism is failing us on so many fronts, none more than the environmental injustices that are hardwired into our supply chains.

In fact, there are many examples of companies and building projects that have prioritized PVC-free alternatives based upon principles of equity and justice. We need more leaders in the field to join those who are abandoning vinyl in product types that have superior options. Our CEO Gina Ciganik used a non-PVC flooring in 2015 at The Rose, her last development project prior to joining HBN.

“After learning about toxic chemical additives to PVC, its inability to be recycled, and the human health and environmental damage it imparts on fenceline communities, I was no longer willing to be a participant in that planetary damage when there are alternatives. The architectural team for the project at MSR Design selected the Armstrong Striations product instead.”
Gina Ciganik

First Community Housing, another affordable housing leader, has been using linoleum for many years for similar reasons. In their Leigh Avenue Apartments project. Forbo’s Marmoleum Click tiles were the flooring of choice. 

Vinyl is not an essential material for any of the largest surface areas of our building projects – flooring, wall coverings, or roofing. It may often be the conventional choice in conventional buildings, but it should not be the conventional choice in buildings that promise to be green, healthy, and equitable. LVT may be the fastest growing flooring product in the world, but it is a throwback to the inequitable, unsustainable world we say is unacceptable, not the world we are trying to create.

Habitable can help you start by using our Informed™ product guidance, which helps identify worst and best in class products that are healthier for people and the planet.  So why not start here and now, with a principled stand of refusing to profit from unjust, frequently racist, externalized costs?

SOURCES

  1. https://plasticsrecycling.org/pvc-design-guidance
  2. See pp. 27-29: www.newplasticseconomy.org/assets/doc/New-Plastics-Economy_Catalysing-Action_13-1-17.pdf
  3. See e.g. Figure 1: https://css.umich.edu/publication/plastics-us-toward-material-flow-characterization-production-markets-and-end-life
  4. See e.g.: www.apple.com/environment/answers (Apple); www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/greener-electronics-2017 (Google); www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-aug-26-fi-16540-story.html (Nike)
  5. www.greenbiz.com/article/inside-interfaces-bold-new-mission-achieve-climate-take-back: “Going Beyond Zero” The march towards Mission Zero continued unabated, however, with consistent year-over-year improvement in most metrics. Today, the company forecasts that by 2020 it will halve its energy use, power 87 percent of its operations with renewable energy, cut water intake by 90 percent, reduce greenhouse gas emissions 95 percent (and its overall carbon footprint by 80 percent), send nothing to landfills, and source 95 percent of its materials from recycled or biobased resources.
  6. www.cleanproduction.org/resources/entry/plastics-scorecard-press-release

My daughter is nine, and she is going through the first stages of puberty.

This is four years before I reached that stage and two years before any of my three sisters or sister-in-law hit this developmental milestone. While nine is still considered in the normal developmental range for girls in the United States, it is certainly early compared to the women in my generation.

As HBN’s Chief Research Officer, it is my job to understand the impacts that different chemicals can have on human health and work every day to help people make informed decisions about the products they use. As a mother, it is also my job to keep my kids safe. While my research will not help me answer the question about why my daughter may be going through puberty earlier than I did, I can share what I have learned about chemicals found in building materials and their potential impacts on children’s health in the hope that you can join me in making the best decisions we can for our future generations. 

While this article will focus on one environmental factor (exposure to pollutants related to the use of building products), I recognize this is one of many factors that impact children’s health. These include biological factors (e.g. sex, genetics, age), social factors (e.g. income, culture), and environmental factors (e.g. diet, exposure to pollutants).1 With this in mind, this article does not tie specific products or chemicals to specific health outcomes in children. Instead, this article discusses two groups (or classes) of chemicals used in building products that are known to have reproductive toxicity or endocrine disrupting concerns and are found both in household dust and children’s bodies.

Children are not little adults. For example, my five year old likes to sleep in a small cardboard box at night these days with his neck at an angle that would take me weeks to uncrick. They also eat more, inhale more, and drink more than adults per kilogram body weight.2 They also spend more time on the floor (see box story above) and are therefore more likely to ingest or inhale household dust. Their immune and metabolic systems are not fully developed, so their bodies process and eliminate chemicals differently than adults. Lastly, children’s bodies are in a constant state of growth and development, and as such they can be more sensitive to chemicals than adults.3

Let’s explore two groups of chemicals found in building products and in children’s bodies that can impact the endocrine systems.

Bisphenols

Bisphenols are a group of chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS). BPA is on the EU Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) list due to endocrine disrupting properties. Specifically, many bisphenols mimic the hormone estrogen. BPA is considered “Toxic to Reproduction” by the European Chemicals Agency. Bisphenols are found in many different types of products including plastic items, paper receipts, and metal food and beverage can liners. In building products, BPA-related compounds are found in “epoxy” resin products, for example, epoxy flooring adhesive and epoxy fluid-applied flooring.

In last year’s article, “There’s What In My Body?” I shared how I found BPA and BPS in my body through a biomonitoring study by Silent Spring. Compared to other participants in the study, I had lower levels of BPA but higher levels of BPS, a common replacement for BPA. I was surprised and disturbed by the results, and I cannot help but wonder what my daughter’s levels would be today if we tested for bisphenols or any of the other endocrine disrupting compounds found in household products. Levels of BPA in children are typically higher than for adults. Most importantly, even tiny amounts of endocrine disrupting chemicals, including BPA, can lead to health and behavioral problems in developing children.4 For example, increasing urinary BPA levels in children are linked to an increase in behavioral regulation problems, anxiety, and hyperactivity.

The good news is that bisphenols are rapidly metabolized. If you can identify and remove sources of bisphenols from your home and diet, you can reduce your exposure.

Orthophthalates

Orthophthalates are a group of chemicals used as plasticizers – additives that make plastics more flexible. Orthophthalates can be developmental toxicants per the U.S. National Toxicology Program.5 Some common orthophthalates interfere with the production of testosterone, which can have irreversible effects on the male reproductive system. Higher exposure to certain orthophthalates has been associated with higher incidences of preterm birth; in particular, mothers who had consistently higher exposures to orthophthalates were five times more likely to experience spontaneous preterm birth (Ferguson et al 2014, JAMA Pediatrics). Preterm birth is associated with a variety of adverse health outcomes including increase in disability as young adults.6

Orthophthalates are sometimes called “everywhere chemicals” because they are so common in household products. With respect to building products, up until recently orthophthalates were prevalent in vinyl flooring. While the vinyl flooring industry has largely phased them out of new products, many homes with vinyl flooring installed before 2015 will still likely contain orthophthalate plasticizers. Orthophthalates can also be found in sealants used throughout the home. While the sealant industry is beginning to phase out these chemicals, they are still commonly used. 

Similar to bisphenols, phthalates are metabolized quickly, so identifying potential sources and removing those from the home is the easiest way to reduce exposure. Possible sources include older plastic toys, cleaning products, personal care products, sealants, older vinyl flooring (pre-2018), and fragrances. 

My daughter is not an outlier. Over the last 40 years, the average age of initial onset of puberty has decreased by 12 months. There are likely multiple reasons for this trend. However, an increase in exposure to a cocktail of endocrine disruptors is a possible explanation. Collectively, we can use our voices and buying power to shift the market towards safer products.

What can you do to help?

  1. chemicals. You can do this by stepping up out of red and choosing products that are ranked ideally yellow or green through Informed™
     
  2. Ask your retailer to keep products containing hazardous chemicals off of the shelves. The Mind the Store campaign by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families encourages retailers to move away from phthalates, bisphenols, and other hazardous chemicals. Hot off of the presses is the latest Retailer Report Card. See how your favorite retailer stacks up.
     
  3. Support legislation that uses the class-based approach to ban problematic chemicals. The Green Science Policy Institute develops research and supports policies that prevent the use of “Six Classes of Harmful Chemicals”. By reducing the use of entire classes of chemicals, we reduce the chance for regrettable substitution and the inefficiencies and dangers associated with a one-at-a-time or “toxic whack-a-mole” approach to chemical restrictions. In addition to bisphenols and phthalates, GSPI’s Six Classes include per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), antimicrobials, flame retardants, some solvents, and certain metals. Numerous state legislatures have passed laws restricting the use of bisphenols and phthalates in a variety of products.

SOURCES

  1. Commission and for Environmental Cooperation. “Toxic Chemicals and Children’s Health in North America: A Call for Efforts to Determine the Sources, Levels of Exposure, and Risks That Industrial Chemicals Pose to Children’s Health,” 2006. http://www3.cec.org/islandora/en/item/2280-toxic-chemicals-and-childrens-health-in-north-america-en.pdf
  2. Miller, Mark D., Melanie A. Marty, Amy Arcus, Joseph Brown, David Morry, and Martha Sandy. “Differences between Children and Adults: Implications for Risk Assessment at California EPA.” International Journal of Toxicology 21, no. 5 (October 2002): 403–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/10915810290096630.
  3. Commission and for Environmental Cooperation. “Toxic Chemicals and Children’s Health in North America: A Call for Efforts to Determine the Sources, Levels of Exposure, and Risks That Industrial Chemicals Pose to Children’s Health,” 2006. http://www3.cec.org/islandora/en/item/2280-toxic-chemicals-and-childrens-health-in-north-america-en.pdf.
  4. Braun, Joe M., and Russ Hauser. “Bisphenol A and Children’s Health.” Current Opinion in Pediatrics 23, no. 2 (April 2011): 233–39. https://doi.org/10.1097/MOP.0b013e3283445675.
    Braun, Joe M., Amy E. Kalkbrenner, Antonia M. Calafat, Kimberly Yolton, Xiaoyun Ye, Kim N. Dietrich, and Bruce P. Lanphear. “Impact of Early-Life Bisphenol A Exposure on Behavior and Executive Function in Children.” Pediatrics 128, no. 5 (November 2011): 873–82. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-1335.
  5. “NTP-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Di-Isodecyl Phthalate (DIDP).” National Toxicology Program, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, NIH Publication No. 03-4485. April 2003.
  6. Lindström, Karolina, Birger Winbladh, Bengt Haglund, and Anders Hjern. “Preterm Infants as Young Adults: A Swedish National Cohort Study.” Pediatrics 120, no. 1 (July 2007): 70–77. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2006-3260.

In Louisiana, the factories that make the chemicals and plastics for our building products are built literally upon the bones of African Americans. Plantation fields have been transformed into industrial fortresses.

A Shell Refinery1 sprawls across the former Bruslie and Monroe plantations. Belle Pointe is now the DuPont Pontchartrain Works, among the most toxic air polluters in the state.2 Soon, the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group intends to build a 2400-acre complex of 14 facilities that will transform fracked gas into plastics. It will occupy land that was formerly the Acadia and Buena Vista plantations, and not incidentally, the ancestral burial grounds of local African American residents, some of whom trace their lineage back to people enslaved there.3 

Formosa has earned a reputation of being a poor steward of sacred places. Local residents have petitioned the Governor to deny permits for the facility, citing a long list of environmental health violations in its existing Louisiana facilities, including violations of the Clean Air Act every quarter since 2009.4 The scofflaw company was found to have dumped plastic pellets known as “nurdles” into the fragile ecosystem of Lavaca Bay on the Gulf of Mexico for years – leading to a record $50 million settlement with activists in that community in 2019.5  

In the Antebellum South, formerly enslaved people often homesteaded on lands that were part of or near the plantations they once worked. They established communities of priceless historical and cultural worth, towns such as Morrisonville, Diamond, Convent, Donaldsonville, and St. James. Donaldsonville, Louisiana, is the town that elected Pierre Caliste Landry, America’s first African American mayor in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War. This part of Louisiana holds many layers of complex and deep African American history.

But in the last 75 years, since World War II, these communities have been overrun by petrochemical industry expansion enabled by governments wielding the clout of Jim Crow laws to snuff out any opposition or objection. Towns like Morrisonville and Diamond have been bought up to accommodate plant expansion. Residents have been forced to move out, their history and heritage literally paved over. It wasn’t until 1994 that the River Road African American Museum was established to preserve and present the history of the Black population as distinct from plantation representations of slavery.  According to Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, Louisiana State University Libraries: “Only in the last few decades have historians themselves begun to appreciate the complexity of free black communities and their significance to our understanding not just of the past, but also the present.”6

Charting a New Way Forward—Together

Virtually every building product we use today contains a petrochemical component that originates from heavily polluted communities, frequently home to people of color. As the green building movement searches for ways to enhance diversity, inclusion and equity, how might it address the legacies of injustice that are tied to the products and materials we use every day?

Architect, Zena Howard, FAIA, offered insight in her 2019 J. Max Bond Lecture, Planning to Stay, keynoting the National Organization of Minority Architects national conference. Howard, known for her work on the design team for the breathtaking Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, most often works with people in communities whose culture and heritage were “erased” by urban renewal in the 1960’s. In Greenville, North Carolina, she looked to people from the historically African American Downtown Greenville community and Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church Congregation to guide the planning and design process for a new town common and gateway plaza. The goal was not to “replicate” the lost community, but to bring its history and present day aspirations to life in the new design. In Vancouver, British Columbia, the development plan for a neighborhood founded by African Canadian railroad porters included an unprecedented chapter on “reconciliation and cultural redress.” The key to such efforts, according to Howard is co-creation and meaningful collaboration, whose Greek roots, she notes, mean “to labor together.”

How might we labor together to address environmental injustice when evaluating the overall healthfulness and equity of our building materials? The precedent of “insetting” suggests an approach.

Insetting has been pioneered by companies whose supply chains rely upon agricultural communities across the globe. According to Ceres, insetting is “a type of carbon emissions offset, but it’s about much more than sequestering carbon: It’s also about companies building resiliency in their supply chains and restoring the ecosystems on which their growers depend.” 

In previous columns, I’ve addressed concerns about the social in industrial communities, e.g., proposals that perpetuate disproportionate pollution impacts when buying offsets rather than addressing emissions from a specific facility. Applying the “insetting” approach we might ask our materials manufacturers—and the communities that are home to the building materials industries—what steps can we take to encourage manufacturers to “labor with” communities seeking environmental justice, such as those along the Mississippi River? Can we, together, resurrect and restore their history, reconcile and redress historical wrongs, and build a healthier future for all?

Black History
Month Readings

To learn more about the history and present day conditions of Cancer Alley, see these excellent articles from The Guardian and Pro Publica: https://www.ehn.org/search/?q=cancer+alley

You can watch to Zena Howard’s J. Max Bond lecture, Planning to Stay, here: https://vimeo.com/378622662

You can learn more about the River Road African American History Museum here: https://africanamericanmuseum.org/

SOURCES

  1. Terry L. Jones, “Graves of 1,000 Enslaved People Found near Ascension Refinery; Shell, Preservationists to Honor Them | Ascension | Theadvocate.Com,” accessed February 18, 2020, https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/communities/ascension/article_18c62526-2611-11e8-9aec-d71a6bbc9b0c.html.
  2. Oliver Laughland and Jamiles Lartey, “First Slavery, Then a Chemical Plant and Cancer Deaths: One Town’s Brutal History,” The Guardian, May 6, 2019, sec. US news, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisiana-reserve-history-slavery.
  3. Sharon Lerner, “New Chemical Complex Would Displace Suspected Slave Burial Ground in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley,’” The Intercept (blog), December 18, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/12/18/formosa-plastics-louisiana-slave-burial-ground/.
  4. Louisiana Bucket Brigade, “Sign the Petition,” Change.org, accessed February 25, 2020, https://www.change.org/p/governor-edwards-stop-the-formosa-chemical-plant.
  5. Stacy Fernández, “Plastic Company Set to Pay $50 Million Settlement in Water Pollution Suit Brought on by Texas Residents,” The Texas Tribune, October 15, 2019, https://www.texastribune.org/2019/10/15/formosa-plastics-pay-50-million-texas-clean-water-act-lawsuit/.
  6. LSU Libraries, “Free People of Color in Louisiana,” LSU Libraries, accessed February 18, 2020, https://lib.lsu.edu/sites/all/files/sc/fpoc/history.html.

If we say climate change, what is the first thing that pops into your head? It’s probably not the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment.

Some people can probably name a chemical that contributes to climate change, whether that is carbon dioxide or methane. But what about other chemicals that you are not as familiar with? In the building materials world, these may include fluorinated blowing agents used in some foam insulation. The agents either have high global warming potential (GWP) or use chemicals in their production that have high GWP.1 Another example is the release of the toxic, global warming, and ozone-depleting chemical carbon tetrachloride in the enormous supply chain of vinyl products, otherwise known as poly vinyl chloride (PVC).2 Purveyors of vinyl products, you may unwittingly be contributing to global warming! 

Yes, the way in which certain chemicals contribute to climate change is important, but this interplay is not the only consequence of chemicals on our climate. Climate change is also altering how toxic chemicals impact our health and the health of the environment – as the world warms, reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals becomes ever more important.

Five Reasons Why Climate Change and Toxic Chemicals are Connected

  1. Temperatures affect how chemicals behave – warmer temperatures increase our exposure to toxic chemicals—.3 Higher temperatures can allow certain chemicals to vaporize more easily and enter the air we breathe.4 Warmer temperatures on Earth can also encourage the breakdown of some chemicals into toxic byproducts.5
  2. Impacts of extreme weather events include concentrated releases of chemicals—catastrophic weather-related events such as hurricanes, fires, etc. can result in the release of toxic chemicals into the air when homes burn, or as factories in the Gulf region are damaged or destroyed.6 These events are becoming more and more frequent and will continue to expose people and the planet to highly concentrated chemical doses.
  3. Climate change can exacerbate the health impacts of air pollution—volatile organic compounds released by chemical products contribute to the production of smog, leading to poor air quality which can negatively impact the lungs or exacerbate respiratory diseases such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.7 Warmer temperatures amplify these impacts.8 As the largest source of air pollutants slowly transitions from transportation sources to chemical products, and as the earth warms, smart product choices will have even more impact on air quality.9
  4. Toxic chemicals may hinder the body’s ability to adapt to climate change—in recent years, studies discovered that many toxic chemicals are endocrine disruptors.10 Animal studies have highlighted that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can alter metabolism and hinder animals’ ability to adapt to changing temperatures.11 While these findings were in animals, similar effects occur in humans as well, particularly in communities without access to heating or air conditioning.
  5. Toxic chemicals increase communities’ vulnerability to climate change effects—toxic chemicals are an environmental justice issue. Ever heard of Cancer Alley? Cancer Alley is a predominantly African American community located in Southern Louisiana right next door to factories pumping out toxic chemicals every day.12 This 100 mile stretch of land is home to 25 percent of the nation’s petrochemical manufacturing and a large portion of its PVC supply chain.13 Aptly named, the cancer rate in this area is higher than the state and national cancer rate.14 Cancer Alley’s location right next to the Gulf Coast also increases its vulnerability to hurricanes and tropical storms. As climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, the impacts of toxic chemicals on this community also deepens.

Caring About Toxic Chemicals Can Help Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change—For You!

While most toxic chemicals do not cause climate change, they do affect how climate change might impact you. These impacts compound as more chemicals are produced or utilized.15 In 1970, the U.S. produced 50 million tons of synthetic chemicals.16 In 1995, the number tripled to 150 million tons, and today, that number continues to increase.17

Very few of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the marketplace are fully tested for health hazards, and details on human exposure to these chemicals are limited.18 We are exposed to these chemicals every day, in varying quantities and mixtures. Over a lifetime, the small exposures add up. Predictions of health outcomes from long-term exposure are already fuzzy at best, but add on the component of climate change and the mystery deepens.19 While researchers continue to study climate change and chemicals to answer the questions we have, there are steps that we can take to help mitigate the negative impact of climate change on chemicals.

Habitable’s Small Piece of the Pie — How We’re Keeping Consumers Safe 

We cannot remove all chemicals from our lives and many play important roles, but, we can follow the precautionary principle. If there is a less toxic chemical or product available that meets our requirements, we should use it. At Habitable, our work is guided by the precautionary principle—otherwise known as ‘better to be safe than sorry.’ Our chemical and product guidance provides advice on better products.Empowering industry to choose safer chemicals and products helps reduce the burden of toxic chemicals on all people and the planet – especially our most vulnerable populations.

Why We Can and Must Do Better  

Between climate change and toxic chemicals, it could be easy to push toxic chemicals to the side as a someday problem and choose to tackle climate change first. But the truth is that the impacts of toxic chemicals are real and happening today and will only get worse in a warming world. These two issues are connected and influence each other’s outcomes. Climate change is having a significant impact on our world, but prioritizing reduction of  toxic chemicals can reduce the negative consequences that climate change will have on chemicals, and consequently on us.

SOURCES

  1. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are being phased out as blowing agents in plastic foam insulation due to regulatory action in the United States. Starting in January of 2020, they are no longer allowed in most spray foam insulation. Extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation manufacturers have until January of 2021 to phase out HFCs. The commonly used HFC in XPS, HFC-134a has a global warming potential 1,430 times that of carbon dioxide. A common replacement blowing agent for HFCs is a hydrofluoroolefin (HFO). While the HFO itself has a low GWP, it still uses high GWP chemicals in its production and may release these chemicals when it is made. See “Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials,” Healthy Building Network, September 2018, https://healthybuilding.net/reports/19-making-affordable-multifamily-housing-more-energy-efficient-a-guide-to-healthier-upgrade-materials.; “Substitutes in Polystyrene: Extruded Boardstock and Billet.” United States Environmental Protection Agency: Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP). Accessed Sept 16, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/snap/substitutes-polystyrene-extruded-boardstock-and-billet.; “Substitutes in Rigid Polyurethane: Spray.” United States Environmental Protection Agency: Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP). Accessed Sept 16, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/snap/substitutes-rigid-polyurethane-spray.
  2. Vallette, Jim. “Chlorine and Building Materials: A Global Inventory of Production Technologies, Markets, and Pollution – Phase 1: Africa, The Americas, and Europe.” Healthy Building Network, July 2018. https://healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/wnxz/Chlorine%20%26%20Building%20Materials%20Phase%201%20-%20v2.pdf.
  3. Pamela D. Noyes et al., “The Toxicology of Climate Change: Environmental Contaminants in a Warming World,” Environment International 35, no. 6 (August 1, 2009): 971–86, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2009.02.006.
  4. Noyes et al.
  5. Pamela D. Noyes and Sean C. Lema, “Forecasting the Impacts of Chemical Pollution and Climate Change Interactions on the Health of Wildlife,” Current Zoology 61, no. 4 (August 1, 2015): 669–89, https://doi.org/10.1093/czoolo/61.4.669.
  6. Caroline C. Ummenhofer and Gerald A. Meehl, “Extreme Weather and Climate Events with Ecological Relevance: A Review,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 372, no. 1723 (June 19, 2017): 20160135, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0135.
  7. C. M. Zigler, C. Choirat, and F. Dominici, “Impact of National Ambient Air Quality Standards Nonattainment Designations on Particulate Pollution and Health.,” Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.) 29, no. 2 (March 2018): 165–74, https://doi.org/10.1097/EDE.0000000000000777.
  8. “Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air/volatile-organic-compounds-vocs.
  9. Brian C. McDonald et al., “Volatile Chemical Products Emerging as Largest Petrochemical Source of Urban Organic Emissions,” Science 359, no. 6377 (February 16, 2018): 760–64, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaq0524.
  10. Research Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, and Institute of Medicine, The Challenge: Chemicals in Today’s Society (National Academies Press (US), 2014), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK268889/.
  11. Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
  12. Wesley James, Chunrong Jia, and Satish Kedia, “Uneven Magnitude of Disparities in Cancer Risks from Air Toxics,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9, no. 12 (December 2012): 4365–85, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph9124365.
  13. James, Jia, and Kedia.; Vallette.
  14. James, Jia, and Kedia.
  15. Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
  16. Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine
  17. Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
  18. Pamela D. Noyes and Sean C. Lema, “Forecasting the Impacts of Chemical Pollution and Climate Change Interactions on the Health of Wildlife,” Current Zoology 61, no. 4 (August 1, 2015): 669–89, https://doi.org/10.1093/czoolo/61.4.669
  19. Noyes and Lema.

Two important initiatives are gaining momentum in the green building movement. One seeks to reduce the embodied carbon of building products. The other seeks to increase inclusion, diversity and equity in the green building industry.

It is critical that these efforts align their goals lest, once again, the latest definition and marketing of “green” building products overlooks and overrides the interests of the front line communities most impacted by both climate change and toxic pollution.

The Carbon Leadership Forum describes embodied carbon as “the sum impact of all the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the materials throughout their life cycle (extracting from the ground, manufacturing, construction, maintenance and end of life/disposal).2 In a widely praised book, The New Carbon Architecture3, Bruce King explains clearly why reducing carbon inputs to building materials immediately—present day carbon releases—is more effective at meeting urgent carbon reduction goals than the gains of even a Net Zero building, which are realized over decades. This approach is embraced by the Materials Carbon Action Network, a growing association of manufacturers and others, which states as its aim “prioritization of embodied carbon in building materials.”(emphasis added).4

Climate action priorities are framed differently by groups at the forefront of movements for climate justice and equity in the green building movement. Mary Robinson, past President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, says climate justice “insists on a shift from a discourse on greenhouse gases and melting ice caps into a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart.” 5 The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform6, adopted by a broad cross section of environmental justice groups and national organizations including Center for American Progress, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club, calls for “prioritizing climate solutions and other policies that also reduce pollution in these legacy communities at the scale needed to significantly improve their public health and quality of life.”  The NAACP’s Centering Equity In The Sustainable Building Sector (CESBS)7 initiative advocates “action on shutting down coal plants and other toxic facilities at the local level, as well as building of new toxic facilities, with advocacy to strengthen development, monitoring, and enforcement of regulations at federal, state, and local levels. Also includes a focus on corporate responsibility and accountability.”8

The embodied carbon and climate justice initiatives are aligned when carbon reductions in building products are achieved through industrial process changes that reduce the use of fossil fuels and other petrochemicals. But rarely, if ever, can building products be manufactured with no carbon footprint, i.e. without fossil fuel inputs. These initiatives may not be aligned when manufacturers promote “carbon neutral” or “carbon negative” products that rely on carbon trading or offsets, the practice of supporting carbon reduction elsewhere (by planting trees or investing in renewable energy) to offset fossil fuel and petrochemical inputs at the factory.  According to the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform: “ . . . these policies do not guarantee emissions reduction in EJ communities and can even allow increased emissions in communities that are already disproportionately burdened with pollution and substandard infrastructure.”  They may also allow increased toxic pollution, if a manufacturer chooses to invest in carbon offsets, for example, rather than invest in process changes that reduce toxic chemical use or emissions.  As a result, disproportionate impacts, often correlated with race, can be perpetuated.

Vinyl provides one example of such inequity. Vinyl’s carbon footprint includes carbon tetrachloride, a chemical released during chlorine production that is simultaneously highly toxic, ozone depleting, and a global warming gas 1,400 times more potent than CO2. Offsetting these releases with tree planting or renewable energy purchases does nothing for the toxic fallout, from carbon tetrachloride, fossil fuels and other petrochemicals, on the communities adjacent to those manufacturing facilities. 

Experts agree that the most embodied carbon reductions by far are to be had in addressing steel and concrete in buildings. Beyond that, experts disagree about the strength of the data available to track carbon reductions and compare products in a meaningful, objective way, and warn of diminishing returns relative to the investment needed to track carbon in every product.  These may prove to be worth pursuing, but not at the expense of meaningful improvements to conditions in fenceline communities.

Habitable believes that these approaches can be reconciled and aligned through dialogue that includes the communities most impacted by the petrochemical infrastructure that is driving climate change. Our chemical hazard database, Pharos, and our collaboration with ChemFORWARD provide manufacturers with the ability to reduce their product’s carbon and toxic footprints. 

We can in good faith pursue reductions in embedded carbon and toxic chemical use, climate and environmental justice and to define climate positive building products accordingly. Prioritizing selection of products simply upon claims of carbon neutrality, however, is not yet warranted.

SOURCES

  1. U.S. Green Building Council, “Resources | U.S. Green Building Council,” LEED, accessed November 14, 2019, http://www.usgbc.org/resources/social-equity-built-environment.
  2. Carbon Leadership Forum, “Why Embodied Carbon?,” Carbon Leadership Forum (blog), accessed November 14, 2019, http://carbonleadershipforum.org/about/why-embodied-carbon/.]
  3. Ecological Building Network, “The New Carbon Architecture,” EBNet, accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.ecobuildnetwork.org/projects/new-carbon-architecture.
  4. Interface, “MaterialsCAN,” accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.interface.com/US/en-US/campaign/transparency/materialsCAN-en_US.
  5. Martin, “Climate Justice,” United Nations Sustainable Development (blog), May 31, 2019, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/climate-justice/.
  6. Equitable and Just, “A Just Climate,” accessed November 14, 2019, https://ajustclimate.org.
  7. NAACP, “NAACP | Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector,” NAACP, accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.naacp.org/climate-justice-resources/centering-equity-sustainable-building-sector/.
  8. NAACP, “NAACP | NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program,” NAACP, accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.naacp.org/environmental-climate-justice-about/.

Current climate action plans are bold, they are necessary, they feel impossible, and they are coming into the consciousness of all concerned (and unconcerned), decades after the early reports should have been taken seriously.

At this point, there is an urgency because people are now experiencing the effects of a warming planet:storms, fires, rising tides, health impacts from warmer temperatures, and more.

To date, climate plans have focused on strategies related to renewable and clean energy, greater efficiency, emissions reduction, etc., especially as it relates to building operations and transportation. However, that is only one side of the (enormous) coin, and it misses key opportunities on the opposite side. It is akin to making the decision to improve your health by incorporating an exercise plan, but continuing a diet of nutritionally deficient and unhealthy foods. You will only get so far, and your dedication to exercise will be undercut by your fast food burgers and supersized fries. 

The other side of the coin? If building and transportation energy and emissions reduction is “heads,” what could be so immense that it fills the flipside? The “tails” of that coin is the vast quantities of products being produced, its emissions and pollution, and the need for toxic chemical mitigation. The missing piece in effective climate mitigation and improved global health is a toxic-free, recyclable product cycle (low-waste and closed-loop).

The Link Between Emissions, Circular Economy, and Chemicals

Climate plans must include Circular Economy strategies, and a circular economy is possible only if safe chemistries are used as inputs to products.1 The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) September 2019 report: Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change makes the case that we must address the product cycle as a core part of climate action plans.2 According to the report, “to date, efforts to tackle the [climate] crisis have focused on a transition to renewable energy, complemented by energy efficiency. Though crucial and wholly consistent with a circular economy, these measures can only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from producing the cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day.” 

There is more than just emissions that makes the product cycle a critical component of an effective climate strategy. At Habitable, our research shows that there is a related and similar urgency in addressing severe health crises, impacting marginalized communities the hardest, but also now affecting a larger population of people. Our plans—starting with transparency (requesting manufacturers provide the public with a complete list of product ingredients); full testing of all chemicals for human and environmental health impacts; and innovation to new, “green” (safer) chemicals—are bold, necessary and they also feel impossible. 

The EMF Completing the Picture report makes the case that we must fundamentally change how our products are made. A key recommendation in reducing emissions is to “design out waste and pollution.” To be even more precise, designing the toxics out of our products is key to eliminating waste and creating the safe and circular economy that is the cornerstone of any climate solution, an inextricable element in human and environmental health.

A companion report by Google, in partnership with EMF, The Role of Safe Chemistry and Healthy Materials in Unlocking the Circular Economy, emphasizes that toxic chemical mitigation is a precursor to a circular economy. It suggests that “the short- and long-term impacts of these new chemical substances has lagged behind the drive to create new molecules and materials. We can see the consequences around us, including ‘sick building syndrome,’ flame retardants accumulating in human breast milk and being passed along to newborns, or entire city populations toxified from local environmental exposures and contaminated drinking water.” The authors of the report put out a challenge to the world’s chemists and material scientists to not only develop molecules and materials that achieve a performance or aesthetic outcome, but also to ensure that these substances are safe for people and the environment, can be cycled and used to create future products, and retain economic value throughout its lifecycle. Safer chemistry is the key to unlock a circular economy.

The health impacts related to our petrochemical and hazardous chemical-dependent product economy are real, but are often unseen or unrecognized. Globally declining sperm counts and reproductive disorders are linked to chemicals in our plastics,3 and a growing library of peer-reviewed studies link today’s epidemic health issues—cancer, diabetes, obesity, asthma and autism—to endocrine-disrupting and neurotoxic chemicals.4 These data often take a back seat to the climate crisis in our headlines, but they too are growing worse and in need of bold action.

“Better Living Through Chemistry” vs Better Chemistry for Healthier Living

DuPont (and other chemical companies) did not get it right with the blanket phrase, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

Has there been some great progress and benefits from innovative products that use new chemistries and materials?—yes, of course. That said, a significant lack of understanding of the toxicological effects on humans and the environment have come at great cost. We are finding that the tradeoffs are severe—though today, like the early science on climate change, most people are unaware of this silent epidemic, and tend to accept the rise in cancer, autism, fertility problems, and developmental issues in children, as only an unfortunate part of life—they or their loved ones just pulled a short straw, bad luck.

In 1970, the U.S. produced 50 million tons of synthetic chemicals.5 In 1995, the number tripled to 150 million tons, and today, that number continues to increase.6 Very few of the tens of thousands of chemicals in  the marketplace are fully tested for health hazards, and details on human exposure to these chemicals is limited.7 We are exposed to these chemicals every day, in varying quantities and combinations. Over a lifetime, the small exposures add up. Science-based predictions of health outcomes from long-term exposure continue to emerge,8 but add on the component of a warming climate and a new layer of concern is revealing itself.9

Both/And Solution

The best climate plans are holistic. They recognize and include strategies from both the clean and renewable energy effort and safe and circular product cycle. The threats and impacts of climate change and toxic chemicals are synergistic, as are the solutions. They must be tethered in order to be effective. In fact, ignoring the chemical/material side of the coin will undermine progress on climate and energy solutions. 

We know better, and we can do better. 

As energy efficiency and renewable energy gains reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation and building operations sectors, addressing product production assumes an even greater importance. Successfully addressing climate change requires a revolutionary change in how we design and manufacture materials, towards a circular, closed-loop economy. But materials cannot flow effectively in a closed-loop if they are contaminated with toxic chemicals. Safe first, and then circular is possible. 

The urgency to mitigate toxics must be on par with the urgency for clean and renewable energy – they are two sides of the same coin. Failing to recognize this, and create holistic, compatible solutions, will undermine our goals to manage climate change and improve global health. 

SOURCES

  1. “What Is a Circular Economy? | Ellen MacArthur Foundation,” accessed November 25, 2019, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept.
  2. “Circular Economy Reports & Publications From The Ellen MacArthur Foundation,” accessed November 25, 2019, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications.
  3. Teresa Carr, “Sperm Counts Are on the Decline – Could Plastics Be to Blame?,” The Guardian, May 24, 2019, sec. US news, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/24/toxic-america-sperm-counts-plastics-research.
  4. Naoko OHTANI et al., “Adverse Effects of Maternal Exposure to Bisphenol F on the Anxiety- and Depression-like Behavior of Offspring,” The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 79, no. 2 (February 2017): 432–39, https://doi.org/10.1292/jvms.16-0502.
  5. Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.
  6. Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Practice, and Medicine.