• Nadav Malin, president of BuildingGreen, is the Vision 2020 chair for Materials and Resources.

    Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan

    Nadav Malin, president of BuildingGreen, is the Vision 2020 chair for Materials and Resources.
  • Image
    © 2012 Tom Lent, Healthy Building Network


To fill in the human health gap, a new initiative led by architects and building owners is introducing a corollary to the EPD called the Health Product Declaration (HPD). This reporting format defines and standardizes how engaged designers and owners would like to receive information about what’s in the products they’re using. (Editor’s note: The author is on the board of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative.)

The HPD specifies how ingredients should be listed and defines a series of reference lists that determine if there are any health hazards associated with any of those ingredients.

If there are, those hazards also have to be reported on the form­—not unlike Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), which have been common for decades. While MSDSs focus on acute health risks, HPDs extend that focus to include risks from long-term, chronic exposures.

The HPD aims for 100% disclosure—users want to know about all the ingredients in a product, not just a few benign ones. But it also includes an option for companies to keep some ingredients secret as long as they report any health hazards associated with those undisclosed ingredients.

Transparency is not just about access to data. We already have more data than we can possibly process. According to IDC, by 2010 we had generated more than a zetabyte of data—that’s 15 zeros after the 1—and that number is expected to grow nearly fiftyfold by 2020.

The challenge is getting data that we can trust in a form that we can understand and use. And that moves the conversation directly into questions of values, politics, and power.

Who do you trust? How should you interpret the data you’re getting? And more important, what should you do about it?

Look at the example of coal fly ash. The EPA and others (including BuildingGreen) have encouraged the use of fly ash as cement substitute in concrete to reduce greenhouse gases.

We knew that there were trace heavy metals in it but believed that tying those up on concrete was a good solution. Now health advocates are questioning that position, and the EPA is backing off on encouraging this “beneficial reuse” but has yet to rule on whether fly ash has to be treated as hazardous waste.

Similarly, there is a lot of interest in bio-based alternatives to petro-chemicals. But a closer look at the life cycle of some of those new ingredients, considering the impacts of farming with fertilizers, pesticides, and heavy equipment, shows that they may not be any better.


Over the past decade the LEED rating system has proven to be a significant driver of change in the building industry. Before LEED, for example, building commissioning was almost unheard of except in labs and mission-critical facilities. And most companies couldn’t tell you how much recycled content was in their products.

The next-generation LEED rating systems for commercial buildings seek to push the building industry to a whole new level of materials evaluation. They strongly encourage the use of LCA tools for whole-building assessments and EPDs for product selection.

Currently in draft form, these standards also acknowledge the limitations of LCA. Rather than resorting to LCA to deal with habitat and human health issues, LEED is introducing new credits and requirements that address those areas more directly.

These new areas include:

• A new credit achievement option addressing raw-materials extraction that promotes responsible mining and agriculture practices, in addition to the Forest Stewardship Council certification of responsible forestry that has long been part of LEED.

• A new credit encouraging the use of products that have had their ingredients—and any known health hazards from those ingredients—disclosed by manufacturers using a protocol such as the HPD.

• A new credit discouraging the use of products with chemicals that have been deemed especially problematic.

LEED for Homes is not moving in this direction yet, but it may well do that in the future once these approaches become more familiar to the industry.

Some industry groups are concerned about these new initiatives in LEED and are doing their best to undermine support for the program. Instead, they could be doing more to support it, while making it work better for them and their members.