The Results Are In: Green Builders and Designers Might Need Toxicology Summer School
We’ve run the numbers from our quiz on toxic chemicals in building products, and we all have some explaining to do. Put down your #2 pencils and listen up!
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet taken the GreenSpec toxic chemical quiz, head over and do it now—yes, before you read the answers.
Find out how you did
Find out below how well you did on the GreenSpec toxic chemical quiz. And feel free to brag, commiserate, add your expertise, or kvetch about “trick questions” in the comments.
Afterwards, if you want to learn more about toxic chemicals in building materials—or if you are looking for a simple, straightforward way to share your knowledge with colleagues, students, or clients—please check out the report we've just released, Avoiding Toxic Chemicals in Commercial Building Products: A Handbook of Common Hazards and How to Keep Them Out.
Which one applies to you?
20–25 points: Consider a career change: you should be teaching toxicology summer school!
13–19 points: You have a pretty good handle on how to design healthier buildings—but the unknowns could keep you up at night.
6–12 points: You know just enough about toxic chemicals to be dangerous!
0–5 points: What you don’t know can hurt you: consider brushing up.
1. Endocrine disruptors cause which one of the following?
Give yourself one point for metabolic irregularities, such as insulin resistance. You also get a point if you wished “all of the above” had been one of the answers. Give yourself a half point for choosing any other answer. Maximum of 2 points.
We put this question first because we thought it was a dead giveaway. Silly us!
Endocrine disruption is probably the least understood area of toxicology. The effects of endocrine disruptors can be all over the map—and so the quiz answers were too. Just over 40% of respondents picked what we considered to be the best answer.
As one reader pointed out, certain endocrine disruptors are associated with all of these effects, so if you picked any of the other answers, you were not entirely wrong.
At the same time, insulin is a hormone, and an endocrine disruptor is, by definition, something that interferes with hormones. This is why scientists are starting to think that endocrine disruptors like bisphenol-A (BPA) might be contributing to increased obesity rates: they directly interfere with how we metabolize sugar.
Many people don’t realize that BPA isn’t just in our food; it’s in all epoxies and many other adhesives, coatings, etc.—and you’re likely to find it in lots of resins that might be part of your furniture too.
Even though endocrine disruptors might ultimately lead to any of the listed effects, each of the other options has another hazard type more closely associated with it: chemicals that primarily cause developmental delays are more likely to be classed as neurotoxicants; those that primarily cause genetic mutations are more likely to be classed as mutagens; and chemicals that primarily cause cancer are more likely to be classed as carcinogens.
2. Choose all answers that seem correct. Halogenated flame retardants in furniture foam and upholstery are problematic because...
Give yourself one point for each answer you chose, a maximum of 4.
- …some are SVOCs?
Yup. Under some conditions, these chemicals can volatize and affect indoor air quality.
- …they might slough off the furniture into indoor dust?
Absolutely. An even more concerning air quality problem.
- …they might leach into groundwater and pollute ecosystems after disposal?
Yes, and many of these chemicals are super nasty: persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals (PBTs).
- …they may not effectively prevent or slow the development of fires?
Just over half of the respondents knew that last one, which is unfortunate because it is probably the most important one of all: use of these chemicals is often justified for “safety” reasons, but they are highly toxic and don’t even do a good job of preventing fires. So what’s the point? (That’s not a quiz question, so here’s a hint: it has to do with keeping chemical companies in business.)
3. True or false?
Give yourself a point for each one you nailed, for a possible total of 6.
- Building occupants can be exposed to mercury in fluorescent lamps only if a lamp breaks.
True: that mercury stays sealed up during normal use. Read up on EPA’s guidelines for cleanup of broken bulbs if you don’t already know them. (25% got this wrong.)
- Manufacturers must disclose all hazards in adhesives and sealants on the material safety data sheet.
False: an MSDS is intended primarily to warn employers and workers of dangers that might come up when materials are being applied—not for those who are living or working in a space where materials have already been applied. not everything needs to be disclosed, and the most toxic stuff is often used in small amounts and won’t show up. (25% got this wrong.)
- If you choose wood flooring, you don’t need to worry about VOCs.
False: VOCs can be emitted from laminates, from engineered wood and bamboo flooring, and from flooring adhesives and finishes. (4% got this wrong.)
- One of the biggest health concerns with carpet is exposure to mold and dust mites.
True: Asthma is serious business, and exposure to some asthmagens can sensitize people who were not formerly allergic. Keeping carpet clean and dry is key to good indoor air quality. (40% got this wrong.)
- Building wiring typically contains hazardous ingredients, including lead, which can enter occupied space via dust.
True: the flame retardants and plasticizers, including lead, in that wiring can slough off in plenums and then into occupied space. (38% got this wrong.)
- Boric acid, a flame retardant used in cellulose insulation, is just as dangerous as the halogenated flame retardants used in polystyrene.
False: boric acid, although it can be toxic in large quantities, is nowhere near as nasty as halogenated flame retardants. (28% got this wrong.)
4. Choose all answers that seem correct. Which of the following are ways that persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals (PBTs) can move around in the environment?
Give yourself one point for each answer you chose, a maximum of 6.
Blown by air currents
Yes, and this may be the main way that PBTs get to the most remote locations on the globe, but scientists still aren’t sure. (22% got this wrong.)
Carried through waterways
Yes, and this is a big problem when PBTs get into runoff—like from lead exterior paint or lead flashing. (9% got this wrong.)
Absorbed from soil by plants and microorganisms
Yup, and then many PBTs biomagnify up the food chain. (7% got this wrong.)
Absorbed through skin from water or silt by animals and humans
Yes, this is one of the reasons you’re not supposed to swim in contaminated water: you can absorb many toxic chemicals through your skin. (20% got this wrong.)
Transferred from mother to child
Absolutely; many PBTs show up in the eggs of exposed mothers and can cross the placenta in mammals. They may also be transferred in mothers’ milk. (15% got this wrong.)
Ingested when scavenging or hunting
Definitely—or, in the case of humans, when eating tuna from a can. (22% got this wrong.)
5. Which statement best sums up the “precautionary approach”?
Give yourself one point for correctly identifying the precautionary approach.
When possible, we should avoid materials that are suspected of being hazardous, even when there is not conclusive evidence.
Well done! Just 17% got this wrong.
6. A toxin is:
One point for this one, and hardly anyone gets to add it.
Any poison produced by a living thing, such as snake venom
In the toxicology world, a “toxin” is a poison produced by a living thing; other examples are botulinim toxin, aflatoxin in peanuts, and mold toxins. Chemicals in building products might be toxic substances or toxicants for short, or, if you must, “toxics.”
Just 6% chose the right answer! The majority thought it was “any substance that could poison people,” while a significant minority chose “any substance that bioaccumulates in organisms.”
7. “Exempt” VOCs are compounds that…
Give yourself one point for do not contribute to smog.
The word “exempt” here relates to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations about VOCs. EPA just regulates the ones that contribute to smog, which makes all other VOCs—including known health hazards—exempt. This becomes confusing on paint cans, for example (see question 8).
Just 33% of people got this right, with a plurality thinking that “exempt” meant “safe for indoor use.”
8. How much VOC content will you find in a zero-VOC paint?
Give yourself one point for It’s unclear because some VOCs don’t have to be counted for labeling purposes.
Just 66% of respondents knew this, and you can see why. “Zero” ought to mean what it says. Unfortunately, you can’t count on that, for two reasons:
- Because the manufacturer only has to report the “non-exempt,” or smog-forming, VOCs (see question 7), you need to know not just reported VOC content but also how the product performs on indoor emission tests to get an accurate picture of potential health effects.
- Even if we’re only looking at smog-forming VOCs, a paint, caulk, adhesive, etc. containing 5 grams per liter can still be legally labeled “zero-VOC.”
9. What is California Section 01350?
Give yourself one point for the CDPH Standard. And the two of you who picked “A spinoff from Beverly Hills 90210” get half a point, just for having a sense of humor.
OK, we have to admit this was a trick question. A steaming bowl of alphabet soup, and no Googling allowed?
Plus, as one reader complained (and we’re happy to hear more, so please use the comments section), Section 01350 covers not just VOC emissions, which is what the CDPH Standard Method tells you how to test for, but also a few other issues having to do with recyclability and resource efficiency.
But in most contexts, Section 01350 is referenced as a VOC emission testing protocol for building products—and the method of testing used is the California Department of Pubic Health (CDPH) Standard Method.
Since the 01350 specification also covers other things, we’ve seen a gradual transition, with references to “California Section 01350” being replaced by “CDPH Standard Method.” For all practical purposes, it means the exact same thing that people used to mean when they said “California 01350”—even though they’re not exactly the same thing.
A lot of certifications and other standards reference California 01350/CDPH emission testing methods—including the CHPS Guidelines for green schools in California, which was the most popular answer for this question, chosen by almost 50% of respondents. Although CHPS gives you credits for using products that meet the standard, it’s not synonymous with the standard, anymore than is LEED, Indoor Advantage, or any other system that references it. So CDPH Standard is still the best answer here.
10. Which of the following products would NOT be restricted by the Living Building Challenge Red List?
Give yourself TWO points for wood treated with copper azole.
Because if you know that much about the Living Building Challenge (LBC), we think that’s awesome! Just 20% of respondents got this one right.
As for the other answers:
- OSB sheathing with phenol-formaldehyde binder is a no go. LEED gives credit for avoiding added urea-formaldehyde, but LBC nixes all added formaldehyde.
- R-22 refrigerant may be non-ozone-depleting, but it contributes massively to global warming. LBC restricts all hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), a class of chemicals that includes many refrigerants and blowing agents (including R-22).
- Carpet tiles with 100% post-consumer recycled PVC backing might sound great to you, but all PVC is banned from LBC buildings.
Posted by Paula Melton on July 19, 2012
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