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.

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.

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.

Simona Fischer, MSR Design

As registered architect, sustainable design professional, and associate with MSR Design, Simona Fischer has spent much of her career thus far developing and testing strategies for integrating sustainable design into the workflow of architectural practice. Her experience includes project management, Living Building Challenge documentation, and firmwide sustainable design implementation.

Simona is a dynamic community of practitioners who help co-create solutions to accelerate the adoption of healthier building materials in affordable housing. She has presented at national conferences, lectures regularly at the University of Minnesota, and currently co-chairs the AIA Minnesota Committee on the Environment (COTE).

Simona was instrumental in the Living Building Challenge Petal Certification of MSR Design’s new downtown Minneapolis headquarters, which achieved the materials, beauty, and equity petals. The project incorporated more than 114 Red List Free materials and achieved a 28 percent reduction of its embodied carbon footprint by using salvaged materials. She also led the development of guidelines around transparency, sustainability, and health for the firm’s materials library, including training materials for staff and external sales reps.

We sat down with Simona to learn why materials have been a focus of her career and to get her perspective on the green building industry today.

What sparked your passion about healthier materials? Was there an “aha” moment or a time that something just clicked?

I was that kid who won a prize for designing the elementary school recycling banner, so I guess I’ve cared about materials for a long time. But my interest in building materials was piqued in architecture school, when we were challenged to create a new ecolabel. Faced with inventing a way to compare one material to another in terms of sustainability, I realized how mind-blowingly complex of a task that was. How do you make the criteria objective? How do you compare products across categories? How do you measure health – is it just by the list of ingredients, or do you include research on health outcomes factoring exposure and risk (and if so, what research even exists)? How do you stack human health and other metrics against each other and choose which factor outweighs the other? How do you account for performance and durability? The questions were endless and led to more questions, which I found complex and intriguing. In other topic areas like water and energy in buildings, the goal seemed straightforward (at least on the surface). Use less energy, and make it cleaner. Use less water, and make it cleaner. But with materials, the number of variables were infinite. We had to think about balancing not just toxicity to people and embodied carbon, but also harvesting of raw materials, ethical manufacturing, and what to do with all that stuff at the end of its useful life.

I ended up writing my MS thesis on methods for assessing sustainability at the level of the manufacturer, as opposed to focusing solely on individual products which change so frequently. I was really just trying to find a system map at a higher level, and make the big, shifting world of materials more manageable in my head. I still use some of what I learned during that project as  indicators of whether a building product manufacturer is serious about human health and sustainability, or just greenwashing. But sometimes they are greenwashing because they don’t know any better, and they are on their way to improving. So you can’t just write off smaller companies who don’t yet have all the documentation. It’s a learning process for them as well.

At MSR Design, the conversation about healthy materials had already started when I joined to work on The Rose, a Living Building-inspired affordable housing development in Minneapolis. My colleagues Rhys MacPherson, Paul Mellblom, and Rachelle Schoessler-Lynn were leading the conversation about why we should, and how we could, avoid vinyl and other chemicals on The Rose and on other projects across the firm. Over the next couple years we held a number of all-staff discussions and training sessions on healthy materials. Many staff members, from seasoned designers to interns, became interested in the question of how we could do better while still delivering a beautiful aesthetic and the best functionality for our clients. By the time we were ready to start designing our new studio, healthy materials as a concept had had enough time to become embedded in the culture

Tell us about your project to build the new MSR studio. Why was it important to prioritize healthy materials for this project? What went into your process?

When we knew we were moving, we held an all-staff discussion to debate frameworks for certification. We considered LEED, WELL, Fitwell, and Living Building Challenge Petal Certification. In the end, LBC won, because the Materials Petal was so ambitious, prioritizing not only human health through the use of Red List Free products, but also environmental health and other butterfly-effect impacts of resource harvesting and global warming potential and waste. At the same time, the LBC path included an emphasis on equity, as well as using the project as a tool to educate and inspire others. We found the holistic approach inspiring, and appreciated the challenge (most days).

It was important to prioritize healthy materials because we knew our staff cared about living out our values around healthy indoor environments. I think the team will agree that meeting the Red List requirement was difficult. It took time to develop a workflow for gathering the documentation. But it also gave us the opportunity to rethink the way we approach materials from the start of projects. Instead of trying to weed out all the “bad” chemistry, we found it was actually easier to start from scratch and build up a list of materials we knew were likely to comply with the requirement. It ended up being simpler, mostly natural materials, which we used as the palette for our space.

How do you consider low embodied carbon versus health in product selection?

Non-toxic materials and low embodied carbon are two lenses on a singular problem, which is planetary health. Human health is a subcategory of planetary health, since we’re part of the planet and made of its stuff. When indoor and outdoor environments, and plant and animal and human bodies, are polluted by toxic substances, both from human-made toxins and an overabundance of greenhouse gasses, the global ecosystem suffers and humans suffer within it. We are nature. What’s interesting is, younger, upcoming professionals and design students seem to understand this intuitively. They don’t even need to be told that human and global environmental health go hand in hand. So I think as an industry, we just need to accept the interplay of embodied carbon and human health as a foregone conclusion and get straight to the nitty-gritty of what materials we use and how those materials are grown, produced, manufactured and delivered.

That said, we also need to get serious about the data used to back up carbon and health claims. We need transparent, standardized reporting from manufacturers, including making sure the scope of every life cycle assessment (LCA) takes all the impact categories of the AIA Materials Pledge into account. I think petroleum-based building materials are going to be a battleground for a while to come. The low purchase price and saturation in the market make plastics seem like an easy choice for all kinds of different finishes and performance layers in buildings. It is possible to make them somewhat healthier for end-users by being careful to avoid certain additives. But that leaves a massive loophole; the impacts of production and waste on planetary health. I think there’s an opportunity for data to drive a new understanding here. If we can start seeing standardized collection and data crunching of environmental product declaration (EPD) data from different product sectors, we might be able to correlate carbon from building products more directly to regional health impacts of the production of those chemistries. This would help close loopholes that allow the incredible health impact of high global warming potential (GWP) emissions to stay hidden in the shadows

How have you used your knowledge to help move your clients toward healthier materials? What has been most successful?

I think some of my most successful work has been in addressing priorities and processes in our workflow. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say they just wish there was a single, simple database of all the great products. There are ever-improving databases out there, but people always want something else that is missing, so the problem hasn’t been solved. I think the missing piece is a deeper understanding of the principles of product categories, such as knowing what different types–not brands, but general types–of insulation or countertop materials are made of, and where they come from. This level of knowledge, over time, becomes a kind of intuition one uses to filter the world of products even as new things constantly appear in your inbox or your lunch and learns. When you understand the principles, and don’t just rely on a database to provide a solution, it also gets easier to speak knowledgeably and make solid recommendations to clients.

On project work, I have the best luck when I’m upfront about why we need to consider material health alongside cost. You have to tailor your message to the audience, for example, some clients are most receptive to the idea of improving their impact on the world, whereas for others, the message that hits home is one of directly affecting their health or the health of people they care about

How has Habitable’s InformedTM building product research been helpful or influential?

I love InformedTMand recommend it to designers all the time, and clients too. The information is organized in terms of product categories as opposed to brand names or labels, so it aligns with the level of learning that I think is most beneficial to becoming smarter in practice. We used the sample specs to rewrite our paint specifications in 2021. We’ve also heard great lectures from Habitable research team members over the years that have left an impact on our staff. 

What advice do you have for other AEC leaders? Are there processes or approaches you would recommend? Where would you recommend a newcomer to healthier materials start?

For designers, I recommend signing the AIA Materials Pledge and studying the categories. The Pledge is a great framework – if you address each of the Pledge categories in some way, you know you’re hitting the right bases. If you can, allot some time to staff education and discussion. I recommend the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal as a particularly inspiring framework for education and good discussion, because it is based on absolute goals, instead of relative improvement. The COTE Super Spreadsheet (downloadable on the AIA website) is a good starting point for addressing materials issues in an applied manner on projects. 

At MSR Design, our internal education efforts led to the development of our Material Library Entry Criteria. If others want to design similar criteria for their libraries, they are welcome to copy ours outright or modify as needed: www.msrdesign.com/generative-impacts

The more we as designers align in our message to manufacturers about health and carbon, the easier it becomes for them to stay in business while giving us what we want

What are you most excited about right now?

I’m excited about natural and biobased materials. On the high-tech side, there is so much opportunity for new materials to be developed, especially bio-based polymers. On the other hand, there is a new straw bale project that is being built in Minneapolis. It’s low tech in comparison to the latest research in biomaterials, and yet it combines healthy, natural materials seamlessly with low carbon construction. The team is using Passive House building science principles to build a durable system, which they will test with sensors in the walls over the next few years. I really resonate with the idea that we can build a sustainable future with natural materials in both high- and low-tech ways

What do you want other people to know?

We, as an industry, are practicing architecture and construction in an era where buildings are made of hybrid material systems so complex, we hardly know what’s in them or why they work. I think we architects can perhaps find evidence of the Vitruvian virtues of utilitas (utility) and venustas (beauty) in the work we produce, but somewhere as a profession, I think we have let go of the firmitas (stability). Not in the sense of solid structure, but in the sense of owning materiality and material knowledge as a critical aspect of an architect’s role. We have become accustomed to accepting a level of vagueness about assemblies and their tons of little components, and leaving the details to the product manufacturer. I think understanding materials deeply is about reclaiming this knowledge, and a piece of architecture we have lost

Thank you to Simona and MSR design for being leaders in healthier materials! To learn more about the MSR headquarters project, check out this case study. You can also learn more about MSR’s commitment to sustainable design and download their Sustainable Materials Action Packet on their website. Follow this link to learn more about InformedTM, product guidance which Simona mentions influencing her practice.

“When I came here, my unit was on the brink of falling apart. We had so many problems; the carpets were incredibly old, and turning the AC on was like having a helicopter inside the house.”

These are the words of Vanessa del Campo. She was born and raised in Mexico and like many other people, she moved to the United States searching for safer and better living conditions. She now lives in Minnesota and rents a small unit in a multifamily apartment building located in one of the areas designated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) as of Environmental Justice concern. Her experience as a tenant is filled with stories of unjust evictions, health concerns, and constant battles with unlawful landlords that neglected her right to even the most basic human living conditions.

Fortunately for Vanessa and other neighbors in her building, she received support from a community-based organization, Renters United for Justice (abbreviated IX from its name in Spanish), that helped them organize and mobilize to reclaim desperately needed services to maintain their health and wellbeing. What began as an organized effort to request new windows for a handful of apartment units turned into an exhausting but successful journey to purchase the run-down complex of apartment buildings from their landlord and secure a loan to renovate all the apartments.

 

“Honestly, we never stopped to think about how harmful [building] materials could be.” Vanessa said. “It was just regrettable to see how we were living. We understand that the new materials that are going into our buildings today may not be the healthiest. Today, we realize it is important to think about how we want to live in our homes, to imagine the quality of life we want in our buildings, in our community.”
Vanessa del Campo

It’s easy to get lost in Vanessa’s excitement as she talks about this newfound opportunity. She mentioned that her baby had a tough time learning to crawl because it was too dangerous to place her on the ground due to rats and cockroaches often running past her. At the same time, it is also easy to forget that in addition to being a mother and having a demanding job, she now has to fulfill the role of a building co-owner as a leading member of the newly formed residents’ collective (A Sky Without Limits).

With so much work going into buying and renovating the apartment complex, the residents had little time to think about the chemical safety of their chosen building materials. That’s where HBN came in. In 2021 the MPCA awarded IX and Healthy Building Network a grant to work together to reduce toxic chemical exposures among children, pregnant individuals, employees, and communities who are disproportionately impacted by harmful chemicals used in common products. 

One example of toxic chemicals in homes are phthalates, or orthophthalates, which are chemicals that help make plastics flexible. They can also impact the proper development of children. These chemicals are banned in children’s toys in the U.S., and The Minnesota Department of Health in partnership with MPCA named phthalates as “Priority Chemicals” as part of the 2017 Toxic-Free Kids Act. While many manufacturers have phased out hazardous phthalate plasticizers, existing vinyl flooring, especially those installed 2015 and earlier, likely contain these potential developmental toxicants. This translates to dozens of pounds of these hazardous chemicals in the floor of a single apartment unit. As these chemicals are released from products, they deposit in dust, which can be inhaled or ingested by residents – particularly young children who are crawling on floors and often place their hands in their mouths.

“Honestly, we never stopped to think about how harmful [building] materials could be.” Vanessa said. “It was just regrettable to see how we were living. We understand that the new materials that are going into our buildings today may not be the healthiest. Today, we realize it is important to think about how we want to live in our homes, to imagine the quality of life we want in our buildings, in our community.”

Over the coming year, HBN will work with IX and the residents’ collective to evaluate the materials used in their ongoing renovation process and provide recommendations to improve material selection. We will also develop resources tailored to residents to enhance their understanding of how the surrounding environment influences their health. To extend the impact of this work, we will create and share a set of best practices that property managers and tenant organizations can use to advocate for healthier materials in the communities they live in and properties they manage.

“Our collaboration with HBN is timely. By working together with the property managers, we can raise their awareness about how their work impacts our health and help change how they select materials,” Vanessa said. 

At Healthy Building Network, we are grateful for the opportunity to work with IX and local leaders like Vanessa through the MPCA grant that makes this collaboration possible. We call on public agencies, foundations, and private investors to fund initiatives that seek to dismantle health inequities through direct investment in the communities disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice, especially related to toxic chemical exposures. We look forward to sharing with you the lessons, stories, and resources that come out of this collaboration.

To learn more about selecting healthier products, visit our Informed™ website, which includes  a wide range of resources and tools to help you find healthier material options.

Un inquilino clama por viviendas más seguras y saludables

“Cuando llegué aquí, mi apartamento estaba a punto de desmoronarse. Tuvimos muchos problemas; las alfombras eran increíblemente viejas y encender el aire acondicionado era como tener un helicóptero dentro de la casa”. Estas son las palabras de Vanessa del Campo.

Vanessa nació y creció en México, y como muchas otras personas, se mudó a los Estados Unidos en busca de mejores condiciones de vida. Ahora vive en Minnesota y alquila un apartamento en un edificio multifamiliar ubicado en una de las áreas designadas por la Agencia de Control de Contaminación de Minnesota (MPCA) como de interés de Justicia Ambiental. Su experiencia como inquilina está marcada con historias de desalojos injustos, preocupaciones de salud, y batallas constantes con propietarios que negaron su derecho a incluso las condiciones más básicas de vida.

Afortunadamente para Vanessa y otros vecinos en su edificio, ella recibió el apoyo de Inquilinos Unidos por Justicia (IX), una organización comunitaria que les ayudó a organizarse y movilizarse para recuperar los servicios que desesperadamente necesitaban para mantener su salud y bienestar. Lo que comenzó como un esfuerzo organizado para solicitar nuevas ventanas para un pequeño número de apartamentos, se convirtió en una larga pero exitosa tarea para comprar el destartalado complejo de apartamentos y asegurar un préstamo para renovar todas sus unidades.

“Pasamos por muchos litigios con el propietario porque no estaba haciendo las reparaciones que necesitábamos y no quería vendernos los edificios. El año pasado, cuando llegó la pandemia, finalmente obtuvimos la oportunidad de comprar el edificio. Fue un momento feliz y difícil porque estábamos aterrorizados de enfermarnos [con el virus], pero logramos organizarnos y apoyarnos unos a otros. Hoy estamos trabajando con una nueva empresa de administración de propiedades y el banco para instalar alfombras, pisos, techos, ventanas, hornos, refrigeradores y baños nuevos. Estamos haciendo una profunda renovación para llevar todos los apartamentos a un estado que es mucho, mucho mejor que el que teníamos”.

Es fácil dejarse llevar por la emoción de Vanessa mientras habla de esta nueva oportunidad. Ella mencionó que su bebé tuvo dificultades para aprender a gatear porque era demasiado peligroso colocarle en el suelo debido a las ratas y cucarachas que a menudo rondaban la casa. Al mismo tiempo, también es fácil olvidar que además de ser madre y tener un trabajo exigente, ahora tiene que cumplir el rol de copropietaria de un edificio como miembro principal de un recién formado colectivo de residentes (Un Cielo Sin Límites).

Con tanto trabajo invertido en la compra y renovación del complejo de apartamentos, los residentes tuvieron poco tiempo para pensar en la seguridad química de los materiales de construcción que fueron utilizados en sus apartamentos. Ahí es donde entra Healthy Building Network (HBN, o, La Red de Edificios Saludables). A principios de este año, MPCA otorgó a IX y HBN una subvención para reducir la exposición a sustancias químicas tóxicas entre los niños, las personas embarazadas, los empleados y las comunidades que se ven afectadas de manera desproporcionada por sustancias químicas nocivas utilizadas en productos comunes.

Un ejemplo de sustancias químicas tóxicas en los hogares son los ftalatos u ortoftalatos, que son sustancias químicas utilizadas para ayudar a dar flexibilizar a los plásticos. Estas sustancias también pueden afectar el desarrollo adecuado de los niños. Estos productos químicos están prohibidos en los juguetes de los niños en los EE. UU. El Departamento de Salud de Minnesota, en asociación con MPCA, nombró a los ftalatos como “productos químicos prioritarios” como parte de la Ley de Niños Libres de Tóxicos de 2017. Si bien muchos fabricantes han eliminado los plastificantes de ftalato, estos químicos están presentes en los pisos de vinilo existentes, especialmente los instalados antes de 2016. Esto se traduce en docenas de libras de estos químicos peligrosos en el piso de una sola unidad de apartamento. A medida que estos productos químicos se liberan de los productos, se depositan en el polvo que los residentes pueden inhalar o ingerir, afectando especialmente a los niños pequeños que gatean por el suelo y a menudo se llevan las manos a la boca.

“Honestamente, nunca nos detuvimos a pensar en lo dañino que podrían ser los materiales [de construcción]”. Dijo Vanessa. “Fue lamentable ver cómo vivíamos. Entendemos que los materiales que se utilizan en nuestros edificios hoy en día pueden no ser los más saludables. Hoy nos damos cuenta de que es importante pensar en cómo queremos vivir en nuestros hogares, imaginar la calidad de vida que queremos en nuestros edificios, en nuestra comunidad”.

Durante el próximo año, HBN trabajará con IX y el colectivo de residentes para evaluar los materiales utilizados en su proceso de renovación y brindar recomendaciones para mejorar la selección de materiales. También desarrollaremos recursos para ayudar a los residentes a entender cómo el entorno circundante influye en su salud. Para extender el impacto de este trabajo, crearemos y compartiremos un conjunto de mejores prácticas para que los administradores de propiedades y las organizaciones de inquilinos puedan abogar por utilizar materiales más saludables en las comunidades en las que viven y en las propiedades que administran.

“Nuestra colaboración con HBN es oportuna. Al trabajar junto con los administradores de propiedades, podemos aumentar su conciencia sobre cómo su trabajo impacta nuestra salud y ayudar a cambiar la forma en que seleccionan los materiales”, dijo Vanessa.

En Healthy Building Network, estamos agradecidos por la oportunidad de trabajar con IX y líderes locales como Vanessa a través de la subvención otorgada por MPCA que hace posible esta colaboración. Hacemos un llamado a las agencias públicas, fundaciones e inversionistas privados para que financien iniciativas que busquen desmantelar las inequidades en salud a través de inversión en las comunidades impactadas de manera desproporcionada por la injusticia ambiental, especialmente relacionada con la exposición a sustancias químicas tóxicas. Esperamos pronto poder compartir con ustedes las lecciones, historias y recursos que surgen de esta colaboración.

Dr. Ami Zota, Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health at the George Washington University (GWU) Milken Institute School of Public Health, created a platform to amplify underrepresented voices in science and environmental health. She launched her vision, Agents of Change, in 2019 with its first cohort of changemakers.

The high-achieving crew included Dr. MyDzung Chu, a first-generation Vietnamese-American, environmental epidemiologist, new mother, and postdoctoral scientist at the GWU Milken Institute School of Public Health. MyDzung is invested in understanding social determinants of health and environmental exposures within the home, workplace, and neighborhood contexts. Her current research investigates the impact of federal housing assistance on residential environmental exposures for low-income communities. 

In her Agents of Change blog, Why Housing Security is Key to Environmental Justice, MyDzung examines the intersection of housing, racism, and environmental justice, and its effects on population health. She challenges us: “It is time for the environmental health community to step up and be at the forefront of addressing housing insecurity.”

MyDzung is practicing what she preaches – and blazing a trail while doing it. In her local community, MyDzung organizes with residents and non-profit organizations for affordable housing, equitable development, and anti-displacement policies. Her dissertation research examined socio-contextual drivers of disparities in indoor and ambient air pollution and poor housing quality for low-income, immigrant, and Black and Brown households. In a study published in Environmental Research, MyDzung and colleagues found that renters in multifamily housing were exposed to higher levels of fine particulate matter indoors that homeowner households, due to a combination of building factors and source activities that may be modifiable, such as building density, air exchange, cooking, and smoking. 

MyDzung has a PhD in Population Health Sciences from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a MSPH in Environmental-Occupational Health and Epidemiology from Emory University, and a BA in Neuroscience from Smith College.

To keep up to date with MyDzung’s research and impacts, you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn. And, click this link to learn more about her colleagues at Agents of Change. Thanks, MyDzung, for your leadership and courage to advance real change.

The Global Chemicals Outlook II assesses global trends and progress in managing chemicals and waste to achieve sustainable development goals, with a focus on innovative solutions and policy recommendations.

When celebrated Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones learned that a favorite pigment—it was called Mummy Brown—was in fact manufactured from the desecrated Egyptian dead, he banished it from his palette and bore his remaining tubes to a solemn burial in his English garden.[1] Once you know better, you have to do better.

Transparency in the supply chain can reveal inconvenient truths about favored products. A fascinating new article about the plywood supply chain brings into view new incentives to stop using fly ash in building products.

In What You Don’t See, Brent Sturlaugson, a practicing architect and associate professor at the University of Kentucky attempts a full accounting of the environmental, social, financial, and political impacts he attributes to the supply chain for Georgia Pacific (GP) plywood. He opens his ledger at the world’s largest open pit coal mine, Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine, located in the heart of Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grasslands. From there the environmental and health costs add up, many of them allocated to the utility that powers GP’s Madison, Georgia plant. The Robert W. Scherer Plant in Monroe County, Georgia, has been calculated to be the largest, dirtiest coal fired power plant in the United States.[2]

This caught the attention of the Healthy Building Network (HBN) Research Team, who previously identified this power plant as a huge mercury polluter. It is also the leading supplier of fly ash to U.S. carpet companies that use the ash as filler—replacing limestone in carpet tiles—in order to qualify for recycled content credits in LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and various government procurement standards. What we had not realized was that the Scherer plant relied upon a single source of coal, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine. HBN and others[3] have long recommended against the use of fly ash in various building products because of the heavy metal content of the ash and the cost incentives fly ash “recycling” provide to continue burning coal – absent reuse, the fly ash must be expensively managed as a hazardous waste. What You Don’t See compels us to consider the ash as processed coal, the original raw material ingredient. In this case, coal mined from the seam of a single, particularly gnarly open pit mine.

Located near Gillette, WY, the mine occupies territory whose history is steeped in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples who negotiated treaty rights to the region in the mid-1800’s. By the end of the century they lost their livelihood to the extermination of the American Bison, and then their land to well-documented, systemic treaty violations. Environmentalists and ranchers alike view the mine as a disaster for the local and global environment. It is a financial disaster for the American taxpayer, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office which cites the mine as an example of corrupt Bureau of Land Management practices that include no bid contracts, financial terms that deprive the U.S. of fair market value, and a brazen lack of transparency. All in violation of federal laws and regulations.

Squandered water and subsidized carbon emissions are only the beginning of the staggering sustainability losses from this coal, according to Sturlaugson’s detailed accounting, which also includes: “dark money” political contributions from the Koch brothers, the use of bankruptcy laws to renege on union pension obligations, and significant releases of toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, respiratory disease, and reproductive and neurological impacts.

Like the rich umber of Mummy Brown pigment, recycled coal ash in building products has a superficial appeal, until you learn the truth. What You Don’t See opens our eyes even wider to the reasons why the use of coal ash—processed coal—is unacceptable in green buildings and building products. Burying these products in our gardens or landfills won’t do. But we can and must root them out of our green rating system and recycling incentives.

SOURCES

  1. From the article Blue As Can Be, by Simon Schama, a fascinating history of prized (frequently toxic) artistic pigments. Schama, Simon. “Blue as Can Be.” The New Yorker, September 3, 2018.
  2. Schneider, Jordan, Travis Madsen, and Julian Boggs. “America’s Dirtiest Power Plants: Their Oversized Contribution to Global Warming and What We Can Do About It.” Environment America Research & Policy Center, September 2013. https://environmentamericacenter.org/sites/environment/files/reports/Dirty%20Power%20Plants.pdf.
  3. BuildingGreen and Perkins+Will are among those that have recommended against the use of coal fly ash in certain building products. Wilson, Alex. “OP-ED: EBN’s Position on Fly Ash.” Environmental Building News, August 30, 2010. https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/ebns-position-fly-ash.; Glazer, Breeze, Craig Graber, Carolyn Roose, Peter Syrett, and Chris Youssef. “Fly Ash in Concrete.” Perkins+Will, November 2011. http://assets.ctfassets.net/t0qcl9kymnlu/1Tx57nRsWYYMEC824CkOaI/38239c5e0fb2044af10bc2b1fac38cf8/FlyAsh_WhitePaper.pdf.
  4. Vallette, Jim, Rebecca Stamm, and Tom Lent. “Eliminating Toxics in Carpet: Lessons for the Future of Recycling.” Healthy Building Network, October 2017. https://healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/eliminating-toxics-in-carpet-lessons-for-the-future-of-recycling.pdf. (see p. 21)
  5. Walsh, Bill. “Home Depot Raises The Bar On Hazard Avoidance – New Chemical Strategy Is An Important Step Towards Healthier Product Options.” Healthy Building Network Blog, October 25, 2017. https://healthybuilding.net/blog/228-home-depot-raises-the-bar-on-hazard-avoidance-new-chemical-strategy-is-an-important-step-towards-healthier-product-options.