When it comes to sustainable design and green building, we’re often quick to think of energy performance, water conservation, and healing gardens.

But a rising area of concern in healthcare is safer materials selection and the avoidance of chemicals of concern in building materials, furniture, fabrics, and finishes—or, rather, the pursuit of “material health.”

This process can be challenging. Some look to third-party certifications for independent reviews, but this, too, can be tricky, as some industry groups have their own agendas. And even if a product is certified, it doesn’t mean it’s completely free of chemicals of concern.

There are also varying issues in addition to toxicity of materials, including whether they’re renewable, recycled, or regional. It may seem impossible to find the perfect product, balancing durability, cost, safety, cleanability, and health impact, but there’s guidance available.


Repeat offenders
Jean Hansen, senior professional associate and sustainable interiors manager for HDR Architecture (San Francisco), provides an overview of some common chemicals of concern, as identified by the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (www.healthierhospitals.org).

Fire retardants
Most furniture, computers, mattresses, television sets, and other items have flame retardants in them to ensure they meet fire safety standards. The challenge is that the fire retardants start to degrade right away. They leach and can be found in dust and on surfaces, moving to our hands and food, and are easily ingested.

Flame retardants have been linked to diabetes, cancer, hormone disruption, and memory loss. In May 2012, the Chicago Tribune conducted an investigation on brominated fire retardants, reporting that the science behind their efficacy doesn’t hold up. On Nov. 15, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on a new study from the University of California at Berkeley on the connection between brominated fire retardant exposure and delays in child neurological development.

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the new study is the largest to show that children exposed to Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) (another type of fire retardant) tend to have poorer attention, motor skills, and IQ scores.

Perfluorinated compounds
Perfluorinated compounds make materials water and stain resistant. This is the material found on nonstick cookware, fabrics, carpet, and even wall finishes. Once in the environment, perfluorinated compounds can travel into humans and wildlife. Researchers are studying the health effects of this.

Polyvinyl Chloride
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is an inexpensive and versatile material used throughout healthcare, including in flooring and fabrics. The life cycle issues associated with PVC include the formation of Dioxin, a deadly group of chemicals. Plus, PVC is naturally rigid, which is why plasticizers are added to make the material pliable–and plasticizers have been found to leach out of PVC.


The good guys
Hansen provides a case study of HDR’s work with the U.S. Army and its use of LEED for Healthcare, evidence-based design, and the Military Health System’s world-class design initiative. The Army worked to avoid added antimicrobials and chemicals of concern and selected low-emitting, regional, recycled, and renewable materials when available.

In her role as an interior designer, Hansen reviewed and evaluated furniture, recliners, casework, finishes, work stations, and waiting room furniture for the following criteria: general sustainability, durability, stringent indoor air quality standards, chemicals of concern, acoustics, transparency, and green cleaning.

“Our team was very successful in selecting and identifying interior finishes that, for the most part, met the stringent indoor air quality requirements and the avoidance of chemicals of concern for many of the products,” she says.

“We did find it much more challenging to find furniture manufacturers that could provide us with transparency for the substances and chemicals of concern and indoor air quality testing requirements we requested.

“We hope to see more manufacturers work to achieve the LEED for Healthcare MRc 5 for Furniture and Medical Furnishings and future transparency requirements,” Hansen adds.


Help in sight
Several tools are available to help designers navigate the world of green materials. Here are a few examples:

Materials transparency tool Pharos (www.pharosproject.net) helps to identify what materials are in a product as well as their health impacts by using a color code—red, yellow, and green—to rate its material health. Pharos compares products, and a filter allows users to sort materials to avoid specific chemicals of concern, depending on the needs identified in the project.

Categories include adhesives, ceilings, composite wood, countertops, decorative laminates, floor sealants and coatings, flooring, high-performance coatings, interior paint, roofing membranes, thermal insulation, and wallboard.

Pharos provides background on the material, explains the health issues associated with it, and offers different providers.

Building product manufacturers have a new tool to provide standardized disclosure of product contents, emissions, and health information with the Health Product Declaration (HPD). The HPD is like a material safety data sheet for building materials, furniture, and finishes.

The announcement of this pilot program was made recently by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (hpdcollaborative.org), a new non-profit membership group that will manage the HPD Open Standard. The HPD Open Standard streamlines the process by defining the critical information needed by building designers, specifiers, owners, and users to make informed decisions. You can find a product’s HPD the manufacturer’s site.

Perkins+ Will has developed its own transparency site and precautionary list (transparency.perkinswill.com) composed of 25 substances the firm supports being phased out of use in building materials. The site has a list of asthmagens and asthma triggers as well as fire retardants.

The Healthy Building Network (www.healthybuilding.net) lists “top downloads” on its site for background information on vinyl, perfluorinated compounds, bisphenol A, formaldehyde, and more. The documents point to evidence that building owners, designers, and architects can use to make choices about materials, furniture, and finishes.

Those seeking healthier interiors are sending a strong message to the marketplace that there’s a demand for materials that are free of chemicals of concern.

After all, with the recent investigative reports, along with the Environmental Working Group’s Cord Blood Study showing babies are born with more than 200 industrial chemicals in their blood and the Presidential Cancer Report stating that the incidents of environmentally induced cancers is greatly underestimated, there is increased awareness that creating healthier environments for staff, patients, and visitors include “material health” in construction, renovation, fabrics, furniture, and finishes.

Janet Brown
is the director of facility engagement for Practice Greenhealth and the director of content and outreach for the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. She can be reached at
jbrown@practicegreenhealth.com. This topic was discussed in a preconference workshop by the Healthier Hospitals Initiative at the 2012 HEALTHCARE DESIGN Conference held Nov. 3-6 in Phoenix.