The Red List

Steve Farrell

We had a great turnout last month for our introduction to the Living Building Challenge (LBC). For those of you in attendance (and WNCGBC members) watch your inbox for more LBC Collaborative meetings coming up.

One LBC subject that garnered a lot of interest was the LBC’s imperative that no materials containing chemicals from the so called Red List can be used in a certified building or project. One of the fundamental directives of the LBC is that a truly restorative culture errs on the side of caution. Many would argue that the bad actors on the Red List are clearly beyond the pale of caution…..we simply have to remove these materials from the environment.

Here’s the Red List:
Chlorinated Polyethylene and Chlorosulfonated Polyethlene43
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
Chloroprene (Neoprene)
Formaldehyde (added)
Halogenated Flame Retardants44
Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
Lead (added)
Petrochemical Fertilizers and Pesticides45
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Wood treatments containing Creosote, Arsenic or Pentachlorophenol

Asbestos is pretty much out of the market due to federal law. Lead is becoming better understood (see the EPA’s RRP Guidelines for working with existing, lead painted materials). Mercury is also closely regulated.

We’ve known for sometime that formaldehyde caused respiratory distress. Flame retardants are some seriously bad stuff – there has to be a better way to avoid burning up in your pjs or in your bed.

Those of you who enjoy organic produce are no doubt familiar with the dangers of petrochemical derived fertilizers and pesticides, both for the consumer and the farm worker (to say nothing of the soil and the damage of runoff).

The hardest nuts to crack in the Red List are, most agree, phthalates and polyvinyl chloride, two closely related materials. Lacking a chemistry background I find it helpful to avoid anything with four consonants in a row; here’s a word in serious need of a vowel injection!

While at Warren Wilson I had a chance to work with a PhD in chemistry who is recognized as one of the leading experts on phthalates; if ignorance is bliss then 45 minutes with this guy will totally twist your noodle.

Polyvinyl chloride is very brittle and hard to work without the addition of phthalates which make them pliable and easier to manipulate. The problem with phthalates is their proven tendency to act as hormone uptake inhibitors in developing fetuses.

I’m over my pay grade here but apparently babies in the womb need very precisely timed and measured pulses of certain hormones to grow healthy. The presence of phthalates in the mother’s liver acts as an inhibitor to testosterone uptake; apparently babies of both sexes need some testosterone at certain periods.

Almost everyone in North America has some quantity of phthalates, courtesy of the pvc industry and of phthalates ability to bio-accumulate, in their liver. It gets in the air, then the rain, then the river, then the plankton, then the small invertebrates, then the small fish, then the big fish, then into humans who eat the fish that ate the little fish and so on and so on.

Lest you now go ripping out every piece of plastic in your home please remember that it is in the manufacture of the raw material that the danger lies; not in handling, cutting, or otherwise living with the material.

This does, however, point out the need to reduce or eliminate the specification of pvc in construction whenever possible. As the LBC acknowledges, it is presently not possible to specify a light fixture, for example, without pvc jacketed wiring. The LBC program then pivots from being a certification program to becoming an advocacy program by encouraging manufactures to develop safe alternatives to pvc and phthalates.

By the way, these safe alternatives already exist; the problem is that the pvc industry has become hugely entrenched, profitable, and powerful.

Another LBC fundamental principle (substantially paraphrased) is, while it may be impossible to move mountains it is possible to move markets.

Steve Farrell