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Green, Greenwashing & Chemical Sensitivities

Six Myths about Building Green

If you're considering building or remodeling a home or office and are faced with doubts about whether to build green, perhaps this article will offer some inspiration. These myths need to be put to rest.

Myth #1 Building green is more expensive

This is the biggest myth because "expensive" is a relative term. More expensive than what?

Expensive today loses meaning when life-cycle costs are considered. Many green building designs, strategies, materials and practices can and do save everyone money because they generally reduce energy costs, labor costs and medical costs now and in the future. How?

In general, Green building improves indoor air quality, health and the productivity of its occupants. They last a longer time, require fewer resources to develop and are usually more aesthetically pleasing. Resale values of green buildings are usually greater than those that are conventionally built.

When we consider the cost benefits of green building on energy savings, worker productivity, safer indoor air quality for tenants and homeowners, longevity of the building, small environmental footprint, etc., then the initial expenses don't seem so great. Green products may cost more initially, but in the long run, they will often save or make you money. Here are three examples:

Example 1) Suppose a landlord buys some paint to repair an apartment before a new tenant moves in. If the paint triggers an allergic reaction, then the tenant decides to move out, the landlord must refund the money and advertise for a new tenant or he/she may be forced to repaint with non-toxic paint. The landlord may have avoided buying non-toxic paint in the first place because it was more expensive, but now he is faced with 1. buying more paint, 2. hiring a painter to apply it, and losing rent for another week until this is completed.

Suppose the tenant sued him for damages to his or her health? How much did the landlord save then? This example is often repeated in residential and commercial dwellings as well as in institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings. It does not cost to use non-toxic products, it pays!

Example 2) Suppose you buy an energy efficient solar attic vent for your home that costs 10 times more than 6 passive plastic vents. The solar attic vent cools down your attic by 10-15% during the summer and thereby lowers your air conditioning bill significantly. It may take 10 years to pay for itself but it will eventually save you money. In addition, it reduces the work load on the air conditioner and adds to its useful life.

Although the amount is small, it will also decrease the need for fuel to create the electricity. This will impact air pollution if the local utility uses coal as fuel and if coal is shipped via a diesel run train. Further, it will reduce fuel and pollution of the equipment used to mine the coal, etc., etc., all of which the consumer pays for in the costs associated with electricity. If we focus on years one to ten it might be considered more expensive, but when we consider years 10-100, green building materials pay over and over again. Here's one more.

Example 3) Suppose you design daylighting into the roof of a structure in order for more light to enter into an old building with poor lighting. It may cost thousands of dollars initially but it will reduce the need for artificial lighting, significantly saving you money every day, and saving natural resources every day.

More importantly, however, is the effect of good natural lighting on the quality of life of the inhabitants. It is well known and documented that sufficient amounts of natural lighting improves learning in students, increases productivity of workers and removes drowsiness and fatigue of residents.

We can measure the energy savings but it's more difficult to measure the benefits to our health and well being. In the short run, the costs may seem more if we only look at payback figures. But when we look at the overall benefits, we may find that daylighting techniques improve the life and value of the building many times.

There are many more examples. When life-cycle costs are factored in, as well as human health concerns, building with green materials makes good financial sense.

Myth #2 Green products don't really help the environment

Most building products that are natural and non-toxic will be good for the indoor and outdoor environment, even though they cannot be tolerated by some due to sensitivities. There is no question anymore about the positive effect of using non-toxic materials to reduce or eliminate indoor air pollution. Whether it will reduce outdoor air pollution, or save the whales, or eliminate dangerous levels of CO2 remains to be seen. There are not enough people using green building materials now to make much of a dent on the larger scale, however this will change.

Just as organic farming made little difference at first in national health, it's now becoming a recognized positive force in improving the health of the nation. The same will happen with green building over time. Eventually people will realize that most of the chemicals are simply not necessary and unhealthy. This will become more obvious when the alternative becomes more popular and widely used in the building industry. When enough builders start using green materials, there will be a noticeable atmospheric difference.

Myth #3 If it's zero VOC or VOC compliant it must be green

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the term VOC (volatile organic compound) to the extent that many have begun to believe that all VOCs are 'bad' and should be eliminated. This is an overstatement. The government is interested in regulating VOCs because some, not all, react with chlorine in the atmosphere to form smog-creating compounds. That is, they are interested in reducing outdoor air pollution. Not only has this narrow focus tarred all with the same brush, but it shows no concern with regard to the toxic effects of various chemicals to humans.

Example #1) The US government has exempted acetone and ammonia — two very toxic chemicals — from regulations as VOCs (even though European governments recognize them as VOCs) because they do not contribute to smog formation. These toxic ingredients have found their way into zero VOC formulations of major manufacturers — safe from government regulation — without concern for their effect on users.

Example #2) Consider the difference between ethylene glycol and propylene glycol. The former is essentially anti-freeze and is used in the paint industry to provide freeze-thaw resistance and to provide a 'wet edge'. It is a VOC and is extremely toxic. Propylene glycol, on the other hand, is also a VOC and can be used for the same purposes, but has no indicia of toxicity. There is no skin sensitization hazard, no inhalation hazard and no toxicity hazard. Paints made with ethylene glycol and those made with propylene glycol both have VOCs yet one is poison and one is benign. Therefore, the term VOC is largely meaningless with regard to product safety.

Myth #4 Green building is still new and not as efficient as traditional building

The design, methodologies, materials and building procedures of the green building movement have been around for thousands of years, albeit in a slightly different form. Modern technologies have made green building materials more readily available, useful and reliable than ever before. The same can be said for architectural design methods and construction techniques.

Many people feel fed up with cheap plastic synthetic boxes called houses that are manufactured quickly with toxic materials, quickly degrade and are often unhealthy for the inhabitants. The popularity of green building is not just a response to the energy crises or the health crises, but rather a natural evolution of the building industry towards greater efficiency, purity, and harmony with nature. In general, green buildings are far more efficient and technologically advanced than most traditional buildings.

Myth #5 Green building may work in California but it won't work here, or it's just a fad for hippies

California certainly is one of the pioneers in green building, but it certainly is not the only place it is being used. Green building is very popular in Europe where it has been quite successfully implemented. Once considered a fad of the 70's, green building is fast becoming mainstream with the help of numerous organizations dedicated to the environment and human health.

New certification standards through LEED and others are helping to define what green building means and inspiring traditional architects, builders and designers to join the bandwagon. The US government which is the largest builder in the US (40% of all building) is also very instrumental in promoting green building through design, products and strategies. However, high utility bills and lawsuits from tenants and homeowners who complain of sick building syndrome may be two of the biggest prime movers forcing the construction industry into compliance with green building standards.

Although green building is a market driven by consumers, it's coming of age through the acceptance of architects, designers and builders; world-wide use; extensive media coverage via the internet, TV, magazines, national and international trade shows; a greater diversity of products that solve health and energy related problems; and a raging entrepreneurial spirit to develop the most efficient and sustainable products on the planet.

In short, green building costs no more than conventional building, saves resources, improves health, works in all climates, benefits everyone and the environment and will necessarily become the primary means to sustainability in the future.

Myth #6 If it has a green label it must be green

Generally speaking, the purpose of labeling and certification is to help consumers make informed decisions when purchasing products. Many people do not understand MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) or complex chemical names. Nor do they have the time to research all the chemicals listed in these documents. There are several organizations and institutions attempting to standardize the way in which products are labeled so that it is easy and reliable to understand a green product.

While the intent of labeling is worthwhile, it is difficult to create a standard way of labeling that will satisfy everyone. As soon as one product receives a label, suddenly a division gets created between those that are green and those that are not green. This can be very uncomfortable for companies whose products may not comply with the new standards. So some have attempted to widen the definitions of green so they fit in. Or, they may attempt to buy their way into the standard so they are accepted and thereby don't lose market share.

Still other corporations with toxic products have changed their ingredients slightly in order to comply with government standards or other green standards and suddenly appear on the market with green labels. This 'greenwashing' has tended to erode the validity of green standards because if toxic products can receive a green label, then the label is rendered meaningless.

On the other hand, many legitimately pure and healthy products do not contain certification or green labeling at all, nor do they need them. That's because labels cost money and are not required by law. AFM, for example, has been making non-toxic finishes for more than 30 years, long before the term 'green' was even popular. Information about the contents are readily available and clearly indicate the purity of the products. Adding a green label would not make their product more green, it would make it more expensive, which would be counterproductive.

Another problem with green labeling is that there is little or no differentiation between products. For example, two similar products on the shelf, each with a green label, yet one is made of natural materials and one is full of chemicals. To the consumer, they look identical because they both have the green label, yet one may be far less expensive than the other due to the way it is manufactured. In addition, and most importantly, one may also be unhealthy; yet because it contains "unknown hazards" or "proprietary ingredients" or ingredients that comprise "less than 1% of the total volume" of the product these ingredients do not need to be disclosed!

Therefore, just because a product has a green label, does not mean it's green. Conversely, a product without a green label does not mean it is not green. Hopefully this situation will sort itself out in the coming years as the need for clear definitions of a product's 'greenness' is critical to producers and consumers alike.

Green Building Supply is dedicated to providing clear and accurate information about all our products based on detailed knowledge and experience so you can make informed choices. We welcome your experience and knowledge in this regard so that everyone may benefit.

Copyright © 2004 Joel Hirshberg    All rights reserved.