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The idea of a "red list" of banned chemicals as a criterion for building product selection is one that's caused no small amount of stir in the industry. Dozens of organizations around the world — including many specific to the building products industry — have identified chemicals and substances they've determined to be harmful to human health. But, as experts say, even a red list is never black and white.
"A red list is always worth additional scrutiny," says Baer. "Nothing is free of controversy. My concern is that you say, 'I don't want this,' but then five other [choices] pop up, and those aren't examined at all."
For instance, if a product — even if its chemical make-up includes an ingredient on a red list — lasts three times as long as an equivalent material, how should facility managers identify which is "better," relative to the health of the occupants, health of the environment, and health of the budget?
"The reality is that there is no such thing as a green or brown product," says Brendan Owens, vice president, LEED technical development, at the U.S. Green Building Council. "It's all about trade-offs and comparing outcomes."
As Amanda Sturgeon, vice president with the Living Building Challenge, says, "What if a product is red list-compliant, but has high VOC emissions? How do you weigh toxicity versus indoor air quality?"
So deciding which trade-offs and pieces of individual data are most critical, and then feeding those into product selection, is the best advice. "There are always potential trade-offs," says John Amatruda, principal with consulting firm Viridian Energy and Environmental. "It depends on the priorities of your organization."
For instance, says Sturgeon, "for a hospital, using products with toxic chemicals is the antithesis of what a hospital should be doing." In health care environments, therefore, a red list of products that have a negative effect on indoor air quality may carry more weight. One oft-cited example is Kaiser Permanente, the largest health care system in the country, which has developed its own internal red list of chemicals it won't allow in its facilities.
As another example, the Collaborative for High-Performance Schools (commonly known as CHPS, or "chips") develops guidelines for health and environmentally responsible schools. In terms of product selection, says Bill Orr, CHPS executive director, the top three priorities for schools are: a healthy and productive learning environment for students, teachers and staff; resource conservation, including energy, water and materials; and then environmental footprint in the community.
"Of course you have to consider durability, life-span, and how a product is maintained, as well," says Orr. "But if you're a school, the number one thing should be how a product affects indoor air quality, so always look for low-emission products." Orr also says that asthma in schools is becoming a bigger issue, so facility managers need to consider how products may or may not trigger asthma.
Whether the product is used on the interior or exterior is a factor as well. Facility managers should determine how often occupants actually come in contact with products — often, occasionally or never, says Baer.
Then, of course, there's the ever-present 800-pound gorilla: cost. "It's always important to distinguish where there's a cost impact, and where there's not," says Amatruda."If there is a premium, direct health-related issues tend to act as the justification, within reason."
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