IAQ Can Be Improved with Greenguard-Certified Products

Certification process identifies products with low chemical emissions

By BOM Editorial Staff  

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is increasingly regarded as a risk to public health. A building’s IAQ affects occupants’ health and comfort in ways that range from allergies to, in the most extreme cases, serious problems like asthma or even cancer stemming from long-term exposure to dangerous pollutants in the air. Not only that, poor IAQ is linked to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism. Some studies have put costs to U.S. businesses related to poor IAQ in the tens of billions of dollars per year.

All that, says John Adams, a green facilities expert with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and a provider of technical services to DOE’s Facility Energy Management Program, makes it high time facilities executives start paying attention to what’s in a building’s air.

“We have been conscious of outdoor chemicals for 50 years, but there was never much awareness of chemical concentrations in buildings,” Adams says. “Yet in most developed countries we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, so it may actually be even more important to focus on indoor air than outdoor air.”

Unfortunately, facilities executives looking to ensure good IAQ in their buildings have long lacked access to concrete tools. Many manufacturers promise environmental or IAQ benefits from their products. In the past, however, a lack of uniform testing, product definition and performance requirements made it challenging to separate the truth from the “greenwash.”

The Greenguard Certification Program, overseen by the Atlanta-based Greenguard Environmental Institute (GEI), was developed in response to this problem. GEI is an industry-independent, standards-setting body that tests a wide range of building products and materials, spanning flooring, insulation, paint, appliances, wallcoverings, cleaning products, office equipment, furniture, adhesives and textiles. With its Certification Program, Greenguard certifies products only when their chemical emissions meet acceptable IAQ pollutant guidelines and standards. The voluntary program is available to all manufacturers and their suppliers and has certified tens of thousands of products made by more than 50 manufacturers to date.

Internal policies requiring good IAQ and emissions performance in new construction are increasingly common among U.S. corporations and institutions. Standards, many of them developed with guidance from GEI, inform construction projects undertaken by a growing list of school districts, health care organizations, governmental agencies and private companies.

A Rigorous Process

To achieve Greenguard certification, a product must undergo rigorous emissions tests conducted in specially designed chambers that simulate office, school, health care or residential environments with ASHRAE-compliant ventilation levels. The testing process begins within one week after a product was manufactured and continues for one week, with measurements taken at various times during that period.

“Products generally have the highest emissions immediately after they are manufactured,” says Adams. “Greenguard monitors the emissions to make sure that there is an exponential drop-off after that time.”

Using emissions criteria defined by the State of Washington's IAQ program for new construction, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's procurement specifications, the World Health Organization’s emissions recommendations, the State of California’s section 01350 specification, and Germany's Blue Angel Program for electronic equipment, Greenguard tests each product for more than 2,000 volatile organic compounds (VOC) and a range of other contaminants.

To receive certification, a product must register emissions of less than 10 percent of the threshold limit values (TLV) established by the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists for each of the identified chemicals. Greenguard Children & Schools certification requires emissions to be less than 1 percent of the TLV.

A few chemicals top Greenguard’s “watch” list because of their known toxicity or frequent presence in building products — among these are formaldehyde and other aldehydes, styrene, and various carcinogens and reproductive toxins. However, new potential contaminants are added to the list all the time.

“We are always updating the chemical list, but the core chemicals that we commonly see remain the same,” says Carl Smith, CEO, Greenguard Environmental Institute.

Products that pass the test for emissions receive Greenguard certification, but the process doesn’t end there. Certain products are monitored quarterly and all products are re-certified annually to maintain their Greenguard-certified status. The process ensures that changes in a product’s design or manufacturing do not alter its emissions performance once the certification has been awarded. For instance, a fungicide added to the water used in one manufacturer’s carpet dyeing process was recently determined to have a dramatic effect on the finished carpet’s emissions; the change was discovered in tests conducted on the same product before and after the new ingredient was added.

“We have found that even very small changes in the production process can change emissions significantly,” says Smith. “Testing once isn’t enough.”

High Bar on Emissions

Greenguard’s certification process is stringent — a majority of products tested fail the first time and require changes in the product or manufacturing processes before certification can be awarded.

Smith acknowledges that the program sets a high bar.

“We operate under the assumption that vulnerable people or people with high sensitivity levels are going to be exposed to these materials,” he says. “So we don’t base our certification standards only on what a person with more typical sensitivity levels might react to. We’re looking at a broader base of the population.”

Because of the program’s rigorous standards, the decision to pursue Greenguard certification can increase the time and cost when rolling out a new product. From a manufacturer’s perspective, that makes certification a mixed bag.

“In the early days manufacturers were very leery,” says Marilyn Black, CEO of Air Quality Sciences and founder of Greenguard. More recently, though, she has witnessed the beginnings of a shift. Increasingly, manufacturers regard pursuing Greenguard certification as a step in the manufacturing design cycle. Many are beginning to push responsibility for compliance with Greenguard’s standards down to their suppliers. And they are increasingly aware of the opportunities that come along with the challenge.

“As products improved, manufacturers started to realize that Greenguard certification could provide a marketing edge,” says Black. “It became something they wanted to let customers know about.”

By achieving Greenguard certification for their products, manufacturers can extend an assurance with respect to emissions that facilities executives find increasingly important. Facilities with good IAQ have an edge when it comes to leasing, occupant satisfaction and possibly even insurance and financing. Nearly a quarter of the achievable credits from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program are related to IAQ, and using Greenguard-certified products earns points automatically. However, only a few of the credits are directly related to product specification.

In addition, Greenguard offers less-obvious advantages.

“If people use Greenguard-certified products in new buildings, they can reduce or possibly even eliminate the usual two-week flush-out period,” says Adams. “That can save a lot of money.”

About the Greenguard Certification Program

The Greenguard Certification Program was founded in 2001 by Marilyn Black of Air Quality Sciences (AQS). A firm providing emissions testing and consulting to manufacturers, Air Quality Sciences developed Greenguard out of the AQSpec List in response to requests from people seeking unbiased information to guide them in specifying low-emissions products for new buildings.

“There were lots of sick building issues at the time,” says Black, CEO of AQS. “People needed a place to turn for unbiased information.”

“AQSpec got old and people started calling wanting more details about certain products, or information about slightly different products,” says Black. “It became clear that there was a real need for a formal, ongoing program.”

In response, the independent, nonprofit Greenguard Environmental Institute (GEI) was established in 2001 to oversee the Greenguard Certification and labeling program. GEI now oversees the certification process, including all audits and the maintenance of qualifying criteria for each product category. GEI’s mission is to improve public health and quality of life through healthy indoor environments and good indoor air quality.

GEI is an ANSI-accredited standards developer and has established a number of performance-based, field-validated standards to ensure good indoor air quality. Since its establishment, Greenguard certification has changed the way manufacturers make their products. Greenguard certification is a referenced standard in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Program for Commercial Interiors, the National Association of Home Builders Green Building Guidelines, and the Green Guide for Health Care. It is used by many municipalities and organizations across the country.

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  posted on 5/1/2006   Article Use Policy

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