How We Protect Ourselves From Products

In 2002, Johns Manville — a Denver-based insulation manufacturer in the Berkshire Hathaway company — decided that the science (and market) around the dangers of formaldehyde were too strong to ignore, and it stopped using the chemical to make insulation.

At the time, the company reported, “While there is no evidence to suggest that the level of formaldehyde released by traditionally bonded insulation is at all harmful, concern about indoor air quality has continued to be expressed by architects, specifiers, builders, and consumers.”

By 2011, four other manufacturers needed to follow suit. And in Summer 2015, the last roll of insulation containing formaldehyde was produced. (Read this good article by Healthy Building Network about how the market drove change.)

How did a dangerous chemical become part of insulation? It’s a not-uncommon process. A formaldehyde was used in binding glass fibers used in fiberglass insulation. Most of the chemical was baked off during the manufacturing process. Some residual formaldehyde remained in the insulation. Eventually a safer acrylic binder was used by Johns Manville. After an acrylic resin supplier (Rohm & Haas) was able to boost production enough to provide sufficient resin, the entire line of insulation products was created with the safer alternative. Formaldehyde was classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a “probable human carcinogen” and listed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as “reasonably anticipated to cause cancer.” The industry is careful not to say that previous fiberglass insulation causes cancer. Rather, it is known to contain an ingredient that can lead to cancer.

How Did the Sea Change Occur?

At a recent Healthy Building Network discussion in Minneapolis, it was pointed out that the pressure to reduce a cancer-causing chemical was not led by the revelation that it caused cancer — that declaration wasn’t made until 2014, after a long battle with the American Chemistry Council lobby.

The pressure came from the market. It took home builders and consumers many years of collective action — and raising questions — to lead to product changes. Certain manufacturers wanted to be market leaders in offering more sustainable products.

Similar changes have happened in other highly toxic building materials that have spiked health issues over the decades — in paints, vinyl flooring, glues and treatments used in furnishings. But… until there is a tipping point in market demand, toxic materials are still created. And… until consumers ask questions and demand healthier materials, it is often easiest for less green-minded builders and manufacturers to not disclose the content of their products.

The Impact of Public Reaction

We have smoke-free buildings now. Energy Star appliances are increasingly popular choices. We want lead- and asbestos-free environments. But prior to public support, none of those things were standard.

It costs businesses money to change production methods. Many chemicals have been grandfathered in as “safe enough unless proven otherwise,” and thus are not subject to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scrutiny.

At the Healthy Building Network discussion, it was noted that in certain New York mortgage underwriting requirements, it is now required by compliance to include energy efficiency mandates. It has been “a game changer,” one participant said.

What if we could get Minnesota consumers to raise enough concern about our health issues (autism, asthma, cancer) that the Minnesota health care system, for example, would ask for green efficiency standards to be met in all new and improved construction efforts? What if we could make this a question of values — “can you tell me what is in these products, or can’t you?”

What if our impact as consumers prompted more building materials sellers to discontinue carrying certain products? Home Depot, for example, announced in 2015 that it would stop using certain vinyl flooring that was a danger especially to infants and toddlers that touch chemicals in the floor that goes to their mouths. Some of the health impact of these chemicals on developing bodies can include cancer, learning disabilities and asthma. Lowes and others followed suit shortly after.

More on this topic to come. Subscribe to stay apprised.

Our Nov. 16 Sustainable We forum is focused on how even recycling doesn’t protect us from the waste of our products — how can we build better options together? In December we talk about sustainable building. In January we look more closely at toxins in the environment. In October we looked at the Minneapolis pesticides in the parks issue.

— Mikki Morrissette


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