The ability to gather information about chemicals and materials transparency is becoming increasingly important to facility managers (fms) and their occupants. In this Q&A, TFM spoke with Roger McFadden, senior scientist for Staples, Inc. on what the issues are and how concerned fms can make strides. McFadden is a nationally recognized leader in the fields of green cleaning products and ecological sustainability and created Staples’ line of Sustainable Earth cleaning products.
Q: We’ve heard about increasing transparency in the facilities management industry—can you explain this “age of transparency” a bit more?
A: There are a few factors contributing to this. Mainly, increasing awareness, customer demand, and changing regulations are motivating facility professionals to eliminate chemical hazards from their buildings. There is more pressure than ever for facilities departments to be transparent about the products and processes they’re using from an environmental and human health standpoint. This shift can also be seen in the ways companies are incorporating green chemistry principles into their material selections/product design in an effort to eliminate harmful chemicals from consumer-facing products.
Q: How is this affecting facility management professionals?
A: Fms are already overworked and doing more with less, so this just gives them another thing to consider. Because of work overload, learning about chemicals in products and their potential hazards is not always a priority across the industry. Additionally, this requires a new way of thinking. In the past, a facility’s processes weren’t questioned if things were running smoothly; however, with new demands for improved transparency about chemical products and processes, it adds another factor to consider in a fm’s day-to-day activities and decisions.
It is clear that the age of transparency is advancing and is here to stay. This is why fms will need to align with suppliers to provide transparency about the chemicals in the products and materials they are offering. This will simplify and make the decision making process much easier. It will also provide fms with the ability to communicate and be transparent with building occupants, visitors, and customers.
Q: What human health factors are involved, and how will transparency help?
A: The wrong types of products can have serious effects on human health. Considering people spend up to 90% of their lives in indoor environments and that levels of indoor air pollutants may be two to five times—and occasionally more than 100 times—higher than outdoor levels, we need to reduce hazards associated with chemicals in the built environment.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), American workers use tens of thousands of chemicals every day. While many of these chemicals are suspected of being harmful, only a small number are regulated in the workplace. As a result, workers suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths annually related to chemical exposures. Workplace chemical exposures have been linked to cancers, and other lung, kidney, skin, heart, stomach, brain, nerve, and reproductive diseases. Improved transparency from chemical and product makers will help consumers make informed decisions about what they buy and use.
Q: What are some examples of this shift in thinking?
A: The shift can be seen in new standards, such as the LEED v.4 standard that offers two credits—one for optimizing products by screening out hazardous chemicals, and another for disclosing ingredients. It comes down to this: if the chemical of concern isn’t in the product to begin with, it cannot do harm. Companies are voluntarily identifying ingredients in their products so customers can make informed decisions regarding what they want to use in their facilities. This shows a trend toward transparency and an opportunity for those working across industry sectors to incorporate health and wellness into design, materials, and products. It can also be seen in green procurement standards being implemented in both the public and private sectors, where avoidance of chemicals of concern is a purchasing priority.
Q: What chemicals should fms be on the lookout to eliminate?
A: Fms should be primarily concerned about chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBTs). My team and I have also seen the following chemicals listed as a concern by fms: Benzene, Toluene, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), perfluorinated compounds, Nonyl phenol ethoxylates, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, formaldehyde, phthalates, trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene, and acetone. These are just a few that we are seeing listed by fms on procurement documents.
Q: How can fms transition to safer and more sustainable materials, products, and processes?
A: There are three main ways fms can do so. The first is through specifying and purchasing safer and more sustainable products. Cleaning products, building materials, and furnishings may be releasing harmful vapors and contaminants into the air that affect occupants. These vapors and contaminants can degrade indoor air quality and negatively impact health, so fms should choose sustainable and safer solutions to avoid this. Understand which products and materials generate low emissions and odor when compared to other materials and products.
Many fms are now asking suppliers to provide independent, third-party certification to verify that their products meet their specifications. We are seeing a growing interest and demand for ingredient disclosure from the fm. The Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) are being used to communicate the environmental impact information to the decision makers in facilities. The Health Product Declarations (HPD) are also being used to communicate the human health impacts of chemicals in products to facilities managers.
The next step to consider is creating safer processes. Fms should evaluate current processes and modify them to eliminate hazards. For example, indoor chemical odors and vapors can be minimized by eliminating products and processes generating irritants. Other considerations include ventilation during cleaning to improve air quality.
Finally, chemical screening is a major part of making the transition. There are many chemical screening tools out there to help fms accurately assess alternatives to make informed decisions while avoiding regrettable substitutions. The U.S. Department of Labor OSHA Safer Chemicals Toolkit is an example of one of these tools. Properly using these tools and products will help satisfy the increasing demands of the industry, while reducing risks and keep building occupants safe.