The Signal: News & Notes from the Pharos Team


Bees Need Healthy Buildings Too

Jim Vallette - March 26, 2015

In the course of researching polystyrene foam insulation, the Healthy Building Network research team came to understand that these materials are susceptible to termite infestation. Polystyrene insulation manufacturers commonly add insecticides to combat termites, especially in exterior and below grade insulation. This includes a type of Styrofoam made by the dominant manufacturer, Dow Chemical. This article is intended as a warning to beekeepers who are considering building “nucs” — the boxes that house nucleus colonies — with polystyrene foam insulation. These boards may contain insecticides that are toxic to bees.   Pesticides commonly used in polystyrene insulation include imidacloprid and deltamethrin. Imidacloprid is a member of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which cause “sublethal” effects on bees – by not killing them directly, but weakening them. The honeybees become more susceptible to death by o...

Material Health Dream Team Announce Progress on Data Harmonization Efforts

Susan Sabella - October 22, 2014

HBN, Cradle-to-Cradle Product Innovation Institute, GreenScreen/Clean Production Action and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC) announced a new Application Programming Interface (API) at a press conference during the Materials & Human Health Summit at Greenbuild 2014. The API will allow systems like HBN’s Pharos Project and Google’s Healthy Materials Tool to draw manufacturer-provided building product data directly from the HPDC’s Health Product Declaration Builder.     Earlier this year, the organizations formed a Harmonization Taskforce Group (HTG) to streamline the inventorying of ingredients, screening of chemicals, and hazard assessment. The US Green Building Council and the Google Foundation are funding this collaborative work. The API is the first deliverable pursuant to this funding. The API will increase uniformity of data shared by manufacturers and greatly simplify distribution of it to a wide range of certifier...

Welcome, Greenbuild attendees, to the Asthma Corridor

Jim Vallette - October 21, 2014

The 2014 Greenbuild conference and exhibition is happening at the mouth of what has long been described as America’s Cancer Corridor.  Petrochemical plants line the Mississippi River between New Orleans, host to this year’s Greenbuild, and Baton Rouge, the state capital.    Here, multinational corporations have produced a huge share of this country’s carcinogens, like vinyl chloride monomer, the essential feedstock for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic products; and some phthalates, which makes PVC flexible. The industry’s impacts here spawned the environmental justice movement in the late 1980s. These days, this serpentine industrial stretch could just as well be branded the Asthma Corridor, given the region’s growing production of essential feedstocks for polyurethane systems.  These systems are increasingly popular in building applications, including adhesives, insulation (spray polyurethane foam, known as SPF) and furnitu...

It’s Time To Rethink Recycling

Jim Vallette - October 10, 2014

by Wes Sullens and Jim Vallette Recycling is a deeply embedded principle of green building.  From the beginning of LEED®, recycling has stood by itself as an important attribute of material and waste management credits. These credits, in turn, fueled a huge increase in recycled content in many building materials, from wallboard to concrete to carpet to construction fill. The status quo is about to change.  The green building movement is in the midst of a quantum leap in understanding, during which the collection of information through transparency tools is paramount. Product ingredient data -- collected by systems like the Health Product Declaration, the Pharos Project, Declare and Environmental Product Declarations -- informs the new multi-attribute assessment structure into which LEED® Version 4 and green building in general are moving. The single attribute of recycled content is not necessarily enough anymore. In other words, the more we learn, the m...

Cracking the (Building) Code on Flame Retardants

Melissa Coffin - September 18, 2014

Halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) used in building materials and their breakdown products can be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.  As such, they appear on restriction lists used by many in the green building community, including the Living Building Challenge Red List and the Perkins+Will Precautionary List.   Beyond their environmental or health characteristics, discussion is growing about whether HFRs, or any flame retardant additive, even provide any benefit in a fire in the first place. [1, 2, 3] While the debate boils over, many US building codes require high resistance to flame even for materials like insulation that are behind thermal barriers and that will have little or no exposure to a fire.  This requires foam insulation manufacturers to add HFRs or other flame retardants to all of their products. [4] Those seeking to avoid these additives can choose inherently flame-retardant insulation, such as fiberglass and mineral fiberboard, but there...

Pharos Tackles Sanitary Ware

Melissa Coffin - August 5, 2014

Building on our review of ceramic and porcelain tiles earlier this year, the Pharos team has added a Sanitary Ware category to our building product library.   Flushometers, toilets, tanks, and toilet seats now appear in Pharos. This was an interesting experience for us – trying to decipher the material composition of a class of products described only very generally: “vitreous china”, “stain resistant glaze”, or “plastic”.  It seems that ingredient disclosure isn’t a conversation that’s been happening in this sector.  While some products may contain a small amount of recycled content, the primary environmental concern in the industry has been, appropriately so, on water conservation. Our review of these products uncovered some materials of concern. First: antimicrobials.  As might be expected in a product category where cleanliness is prized, toilets and toilet seats commonly contain antimicro...

One Tiny Problem with Mortar & Grout: Nanosilver

Melissa Coffin - May 19, 2014

When we opened a Pharos product category for Ceramic Tiles last month, the mortars and grouts required to install them were a bit of an afterthought: essentially cement, we assumed, adding these products to Pharos would be a snap.  As it happens, we were wrong on both counts.  Far from just cement, there is a wide range of chemistries used to formulate mortars and grouts, each unique in the ingredients and additives required… except for one tiny exception: our research found that silver- and nanosilver-based antimicrobials are virtually standard issue in mortars and grouts. Our review of cementitious, epoxy, and urethane mortars and grouts led us through countless technical data sheets, MSDSs, and product brochures, and the majority of grouting products (and some mortars that can also be used as grout) market formulations with antimicrobial/mold resistant/mildew resistant additives.  This makes sense, of course, since grouts are on the surfaces of floors an...

Made in the USA: A Healthy Choice for Ceramic Tiles

Jim Vallette - April 2, 2014

When purchasing ceramic wall or flooring tiles, focus on products made in the USA.  Not only will you help staunch the exodus of the ceramic tile industry to other continents, you will probably avoid bringing toxic heavy metals into your building project. That is the main conclusion from our research into the ceramic tile industry, which culminated in this week’s opening of our newest category of product evaluations.  The Pharos building product database provides in-depth and product-specific analysis of the vast majority of floorings, including carpet, solid wood, engineered wood, rubber (natural and synthetic), vinyl, cork, polyolefin, and now ceramic tile flooring. Transparency in the tile industry is on the increase, but full disclosure of material contents remains rare. The lack of specifics about some key ingredients – especially tile glazes and processing additives  -- required us, as with every category we have researched since 2009 -- to d...

State Seeking Safer Paint Strippers, Sleep Pads, and Spray Foam

Tom Lent - March 13, 2014

“Is it necessary?” That’s the key question the State of California is asking about chemicals in consumer products that are known to cause serious harm to people or the environment. The state took a small but very significant step today in its Safer Consumer Product program, identifying the first three product-chemical combinations they plan to evaluate for regulation. Two are actively used in construction. There are compelling cases for getting rid of each of them: Methylene chloride in strippers used on paint and varnish and surface cleaners. Methylene chloride metabolizes to carbon monoxide in the body and has killed at least fourteen bathtub refinishers since 2000 as well as being a carcinogen. Alternative products are available in the marketplace now. The flame retardant chlorinated tris (TDCPP) in children’s foam sleeping mats. Chlorinated tris is a known carcinogen that was banned from kids pajamas in the 70s but nonetheless continues to b...

Dust in the Wind: EPA’s Vacuous Review of Coal Waste in Building Products

Jim Vallette - February 28, 2014

The EPA’s ongoing review of coal combustion wastes’ regulatory status would seem like a great opportunity to explore essential questions about the safety of bringing coal wastes into a wide range of interior building materials. But, any hopes for that kind of investigation crashed to earth with the EPA’s new report, Coal Combustion Residual Beneficial Use Evaluation: Fly Ash Concrete and FGD Gypsum Wallboard (February 2014). Instead, the report signals a return to the agency’s longstanding role as cheerleader for the coal ash industry.  In 2010, the EPA Inspector General said the agency needed to reconsider its promotion of coal power waste reuse, and get some facts. "We determined that risk information on EPA’s Coal Combustion Products Partnership website was incomplete, and that information on the website appeared to inappropriately endorse commercial products," wrote Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. In response, rather than ...