The Social Impacts of Green (and Not-So-Green) Materials

With a wave of activism around the larger social impact of green building materials and new research into their life cycle performance, it’s no longer enough for a building to be net-zero, solar-powered, or utilize non-potable water. The raw materials and products used to construct green buildings also have to be sustainable from both an environmental and a social perspective.

What goes into a building – appliances, furniture, piping, flooring, insulation, electronics, and everything else in between – may have complex and often destructive supply chains that affect people beyond the direct building end-users. Even products considered green by today’s standards often don’t take into account the true social impact of these products.

Communities and Supply Chains

When evaluating the true sustainability of the product, we must account for the effects of materials and products on communities. This includes factory workers and those responsible for disassembling the product at the end of its use, the miners and harvesters of raw materials used to make building products, and the effects of manufacturing on those who live near production facilities, landfills and construction sites.

Unfortunately, historically disadvantaged communities still continue to bear the greatest burden of pollution on their health, whether it’s nearby examples in formally “redlined” neighborhoods in Los Angeles, or in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” the Ohio River Valley, or in numerous communities across the world that lack the basic protections many of us enjoy. The glaring inequities of industrial pollution raise urgent questions about equity that our industry has continued to ignore.

It has become increasingly clear that the materials we choose to build with are affecting populations way beyond the users and occupants of green buildings. This is a much bigger story about social equity.

Product Vetting Tools Help

One of BuroHappold’s local Living Building Challenge (LBC) projects, the Santa Monica City Services Building, designed by Frederick Fisher & Partners Architects, uses a restrictive procurement that excludes all of the Living Future institute’s Red List materials. The Red List is a comprehensive database of products that contain any chemicals of concern (COCs) that may be considered harmful by a range of federal, state, and private regulatory agencies. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) also publish details on Red List chemicals, which are available to the public.

The newest vetting tools, like Environmental Product Declarations, Health Product Declarations, Declare Labels, the Living Product Challenge and online product databases like EC3, Mindful Materials and Sustainable Minds, can all help green building professionals make better product choices, yet, there are still hidden toxins in even the greenest products. They can be hard to detect, and have unforeseen consequences when released into the environment – either during manufacture, by accident, or at the end of a building’s lifespan.

Supply Chains Still Matter

What happens when common products burn or are otherwise disturbed – either intentionally during demolition or due to a disaster such as an earthquake or fire? Unsurprisingly, firefighters and other first responders suffer a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general public.

One such material of concern is Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). The chlorine required to make this ubiquitous product typically utilizes mercury, asbestos or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances chemicals (PFAs) during synthesis, which can have devastating health implications on manufacturing workers and the communities living near PVC or chlorine production facilities. Harmful additives like phthalates, which improve the flexibility of material, have been classified as endocrine disruptors, having pronounced effects on the human hormonal system, exposing people to negative health impacts across the entire product life cycle.

PVC’s widespread use in wiring, roofing, flooring, and plumbing pipes can cause detrimental health effects for building end users, but also raises a concern to those living in California’s wildfire country. When burned, PVC has been found to emit hazardous substances like dioxins, known carcinogens, into the air. Compromised PVC plumbing piping can allow harmful pollutants like benzene into drinking supplies, like what happened to the city of Santa Rosa, potentially causing human health implications long after the fire has been put out. Luckily, many alternatives to PVC exist, including low smoke halogen free wiring, copper piping, and natural flooring.

When looking at singular aspects like low procurement cost or recycled content, it’s critical to be cognizant of these health impacts.

Petrochemicals: Another Problem

Fossil fuels are pervasive in many building products, including so-called green materials. With products relying on increasingly long, complicated supply chains, it can be difficult to determine if insulation, high performance coatings, duct liner, or finishes are petrochemical-based. In most cases, fossil-fuel-based products are almost impossible to avoid.

By 2050, the emissions associated with petrochemicals will account for 17% of global GHGs — the equivalent of 615 coal plants and half of all the growth in demand for oil. To decarbonize buildings, fossil fuel-based plastics and petrochemicals must yield to alternatives.

As consumers and as specifiers, green building professionals have significant influence that many are beginning to exercise. At BuroHappold, we believe we can and must make buildings using materials that don’t contain synthetics that are harmful to humans and biodiversity. The materials we select shouldn’t harm anyone over the course of the building’s lifespan.

Ideally, every green product on the market should do no harm – or even do good – from cradle to cradle. It is a complex problem and there is much work to do toward creating a more transparent and closed-loop system that minimizes resource inputs while also reducing waste, pollution, and carbon emissions. Still, we are tirelessly working toward that goal.

Through innovative projects and better practices, we can slowly transform the materials marketplace for zero-carbon and petrochemical-free alternatives that benefit all of society. We believe our local Southern California industry has what it takes to show the rest of the world how.

Editor’s Note:  Please view USGBC-LA’s recent announcement about upcoming trainings in 2020 that will help put California’s “Buy Clean” Policy (AB262)  into action using the EC3 tool and working with various partners.

Please join the conversation by leaving your thoughts below.

About the Author

Kathleen HetrickKathleen Hetrick is a senior sustainability engineer at BuroHappold Engineering and a LEED, WELL, and EcoDistricts AP. As part of BuroHappold’s sustainability and physics team, Kathleen combines her passion for human-focused sustainable design with a technical background in mechanical engineering. Her passion for improving the health aspects of sustainable materials on all of her projects has sparked a firm wide effort to identify and reduce the most harmful chemicals within the MEP scope of work.

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