An Ingredient List for a Healthy Home
Peter Syrett, an architect, and Chris Youssef, an interior designer, believe that building materials should be labeled, just like cereal boxes and soup cans, so consumers can avoid ingredients that might be harmful. With the backing of their employer, the global architecture firm Perkins + Will, they have created a database linking common forms of construction materials to government warnings about the substances contained in them.
The New York Times
Feb, 2, 2012
The database, available at transparency.perkinswill.com, grew out of research that began when the two men were designing a cancer center at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, and wanted to make sure it was free of known and suspected carcinogens. Before they could judge the safety of various products, they had to know what those products were made of — information that wasn’t readily available. They began gathering data every way they could, continuing after the cancer center opened in 2003, and after their longtime employer, Guenther 5 Architects, was acquired by Perkins + Will in 2008. To their relief, Mr. Syrett said, the larger firm is equally determined to deliver healthy buildings.
Intended for architects and designers, the database can also be used by nonprofessionals, including anyone shopping for home-improvement products. Recently, the men sat down in front of a display of kitchen counters at a Home Depot near Mr. Syrett’s house in Brooklyn to talk about their work.
What kinds of things should consumers be concerned about?
Mr. Syrett: Well, there’s PVC, which is used in pipes, conduits, waterproofing, siding, doors and windows, resilient flooring, carpet backing, wall coverings, window treatments, furniture and wire cable sheathing. ...
Is that a problem?
Mr. Syrett: PVC is a known carcinogen and developmental toxin, and it’s a suspected cardiovascular and blood toxicant, neuro toxicant, reproductive toxicant, respiratory toxicant, sense organ toxicant and endocrine toxicant.
What about particle board?
Mr. Youssef: It probably contains urea formaldehyde, which is a probable carcinogen and suspected asthma trigger.
From now on, I’ll stick to natural materials like wood.
Mr. Youssef: Well, wood, these days, is going to have pesticides. It’s going to have flame retardants. And it’s probably going to have aluminum trioxide.
Mr. Youssef: A chemical used to make the surface harder. People need to understand: no material is pristine these days. Even if it starts out natural, it ends up being transformed through industrial processes.
So is there any easy way to find out what’s in, say, a shower enclosure?
Mr. Syrett: Not yet. In a supermarket, you can turn the box around and read the ingredients. We’d like to see a labeling system, so when you pick up a piece of drywall, you can know what’s in it. Once you know what the ingredients are, you’ll need to access information about those substances, which is where our database comes in.
What will persuade companies to start labeling products?
Mr. Syrett: Consumer pressure. We need people to ask questions of the seller, who will then turn to the manufacturer. It worked with baby bottles; people stated asking about BPA, and soon manufacturers were labeling products as BPA-free.
Doesn’t the government require manufacturers to disclose their products’ ingredients?
Mr. Youssef: No. Sometimes, like with this solid-surface material used in this countertop, they’ve applied for a patent, and we can read the patent application to find out some of the ingredients. But often the applications are vague. We’re not really sure what’s in this product.
Mr. Syrett: And even if we figured it out today, we wouldn’t know tomorrow, because they could change their formulation.
Can’t you guys test a product to find out what’s in it?
Mr. Youssef: You can’t just scan it in.
Mr. Syrett: It isn’t like “C.S.I.”
Doesn’t the government restrict use of dangerous products?
Mr. Youssef: The closest we come is the Materials Safety Data Sheet, issued by OSHA. It’s for handling a particular material, so a carpenter would know whether he should have a respirator or eye protection when he’s working with it. But it’s about the workplace — fabrication and installation. There’s no equivalent for consumers.
Isn’t Perkins + Will worried that if it follows your recommendations, there will be nothing left to build with?
Mr. Syrett: For the most part, we’ve been able to replace substances on the precautionary list with ones that aren’t. And sometimes they even cost less. There’s a myth that green materials are more expensive. One area where we failed is with wiring. The codes require wiring to have a kind of jacketing that’s made of PVC.
Is it only a problem if someone eats the wiring?
Mr. Syrett: Since we’ve all heard about kids eating paint chips, that image is stuck in our heads. But it’s not just about ingestion. Often you absorb stuff through your skin. You breathe it in. It all depends on what the substance is.
In the meantime, what products can you recommend as absolutely safe?
Mr. Youssef: Peter has a story about Africa.
Mr. Syrett: I was in Mali. I saw a guy repairing his house. He had a bucket of water; he would scoop up earth to make mud and lather the mud into the wall. And when part of the wall decayed, it just dropped back onto the ground. That’s a sustainable product.
Short of building our houses out of mud, what can we do?
Mr. Youssef: You should be asking when you’re dealing with your architect, your salesperson, “What’s it made of?”
Mr. Syrett: And make conservative choices. Stay away from products you suspect might be hazardous.
Isn’t that a lot to ask?
Mr. Syrett: People make sophisticated choices every time they go grocery shopping. Or buy baby bottles or toys. There’s no reason it can’t be the same with building products.