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Material Science

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As we work to make our buildings more sustainable, selecting environmentally responsible building products and materials is critical to reducing the carbon footprint and building healthy buildings.  To select materials wisely, we have to understand what is in them, how they were made, and if they can be recycled at the end of their usefulness.

There are over 60,000 synthetic chemicals that were grandfathered when the first chemical regulatory system was adopted in the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act. These materials are considered innocent until proven guilty and the burden is on the public to prove they are unsafe.

Toxic chemicals can be found in many things including paints, flooring, carpeting, PVC pipes, and appliances. One example is Methylene chloride that is found is the paint stripper Goof Off Pro Stripper. Veena Singla, Ph.D Associate Director of Science and Policy at the University of California, San Francisco said, “Methylene chloride is a toxic chemical that can quickly build up to dangerous levels in work spaces. It can cause rapid unconsciousness and death and has killed far too many people already. These tragedies are preventable.” The elimination of toxic materials is most important for interior products where occupant exposure is an issue.

Materials should also be evaluated on their life cycle which includes embodied energy consumed in the raw material extraction, production, transportation, use, and recycling or disposal. This is especially important for large quantities of materials.

A tool that help determine the best materials is an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)  which is sometimes described as a “nutrition label for products”. The EPD document outlines the sustainability of a product. It includes a list of the basic materials and components, a description of the manufacturing process, the life cycle assessment, the carbon footprint and other environmental impact data such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) emissions or third party certifications.

There are two good resources to find sustainable healthy products. One is  The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is a non-profit organization that provides independent certification of sustainable products from building materials to cleaning supplies. Their list of certified products are found at www.c2ccertified.org. The other is Building Green found at www.buildinggreen.com