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Building with Precaution

I’m at GreenBuild 2009 in Phoenix, AZ this week. The very first event I attended was hosted by international architecture firm Perkins + Will. On Tuesday evening, the firm unveiled an online tool for architects – and the public – that highlights “chemicals that are listed by government agencies as having negative health issues and to associate them with the classes of building materials where they might be commonly found.”

Phoenix convention center

Phoenix convention center

The tool, called the Precautionary List, is intended to help professionals who are involved in specifying materials used in buildings to find alternatives to materials that are suspected of causing harm to human health and/or the environment. Perkins + Will Principal Robin Guenther explained in a panel discussion, “It’s hard to imagine that as architects we don’t know what’s in the material we build our buildings with. As licensed architects who are concerned with health, safety, and welfare, we exist in a soup – a stew- of product claims and misinformation.”

The Precautionary List is available free online. It allows users to browse by categories like chemical compounds, indoor air quality, flame retardants, or wood additives and treatments. There are categories that correspond to specifiers divisions or health affects like carcinogens or developmental toxicants. There is also a search option and an A-Z list. The first item in the A-Z list is arsenic, an elemental chemical used in wood treatments that is classified by EPA as a human carcinogen.

The allusion to the ethic of the precautionary principle was not an accident. The intention of the list is to provide information so that architects can strive to use less-toxic materials. However, the panel admitted that the science around actual human health effects of materials used in buildings is not always available. For example, bisphenol A is a suspected endocrine disrupter. But it is not clear to what extent humans are exposed to BPA in adhesives, coatings, paint and other building materials.

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