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.

This website explores the concept of planetary boundaries, a framework of nine key Earth system processes that humanity must stay within to ensure long-term sustainability and avoid irreversible environmental harm.

Earthjustice lays out the pillars of the argument against the oil and gas industry’s push for a petrochemical boom, which threatens to lock in more climate pollution and toxic chemicals in already overburdened low-income and minority communities.

The Planetary Health Alliance is a global consortium of over 400 organizations from 60+ countries dedicated to studying and addressing the effects of global environmental change on human health.

The American Chemistry Council promotes chemical recycling as a solution to plastic waste but this article highlights concerns raised by environmentalists about its efficacy and environmental impact, as well as the lobbying efforts to reclassify it as manufacturing in 24 states.

This article discusses the latest update to the planetary boundaries model, highlighting the inclusion of numerical guideposts for each boundary and emphasizing the interconnected factors influencing Earth’s habitability beyond climate change.

In this study several commercial paints were analyzed for volatile and nonvolatile per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), finding that paints could be potential sources of human exposure to PFAS, with one paint exceeding the reference dose for children and adults.

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 Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals, endorsed by over 100 organizations, confronts the chemical industry’s role in the climate crisis and provides guidance for advancing environmental justice in communities disproportionately affected by harmful chemical exposure.

Coming Clean and EJHA teamed up with NRDC, Rashida Jones, and Molly Crabapple to tell the stories of vulnerable fenceline communities living near over 12,000 high-risk chemical facilities in America, urging action to protect their health and safety.

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.