July 10, 2023 / Abby Roberts

Addressing Climate, Health, and Equity in the Built Environment

More than 85,000 chemicals are listed in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Substances Control Inventory, or TSCA Inventory. Of these chemicals, EPA has only issued regulations that apply to a handful of substances. Notably, EPA has not yet completely banned all uses of asbestos, a well-known carcinogen. Environmental and public health organizations are pressuring EPA to take decisive actions to regulate chemicals that have been linked to human health effects, but this is a years-long process. It also takes time to acquire information about chemicals of concern, their uses, and their effects, as well as to decide whether and how to regulate them.

Well-documented research shows that many chemicals of concern are ubiquitous in the United States, including in environments where people live and work. According to Heather Henriksen, MPA, “they are used in everyday products we all buy; harmful classes of chemicals are also often found in our building materials.”

Healthier Buildings at Harvard

Henriksen has led the Harvard Office for Sustainability, which addresses aspects of the climate crisis and sustainable development, since its inception in 2008. The Office of Sustainability’s projects include working with building operators, project teams, and researchers to ensure the university’s buildings are sustainably designed, constructed, and operated. When researchers approached the office with their concerns about the health effects of certain classes of chemicals, they began considering how the university could avoid using building materials containing those chemicals. Henriksen describes it as a moment of revelation. “The researchers have been studying the impact of these chemicals of concern on public health for decades,” she said, “yet these same chemicals are put into the products we, and other owners, are then buying and installing in our spaces.”

In 2016, Henriksen led the creation of the Harvard Healthier Building Academy (HHBA) with faculty and researchers to address the issue of toxic building materials. According to Henriksen, this “robust collaboration” between the Office for Sustainability and faculty from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Harvard Medical School identifies products with harmful chemicals of concern and then works with manufacturers to develop healthier product alternatives. The university then purchases these products and uses them in the construction of its buildings.

Henriksen explained that this collaboration links scientists pushing for healthier materials and greater openness about product ingredients with manufacturers, who she described as generally aligned with the goal of removing chemicals of concern from their products. The result is a healthier, more sustainable, more transparent supply chain. “Working with our researchers, we apply the science to help manufacturers remove chemicals of concern in their supply chain[s]. And then we, as owners, buy the optimized products and share this information with other owners and project teams with the goal of sending a clear market signal and encouraging others to buy these optimized products.’”

One of the HHBA success stories is the Science and Engineering Complex, a 544,000 square foot laboratory building. Henriksen and the project team responsible for designing and constructing the building worked with vendors to improve product transparency, remove chemicals of concern, and provide safer alternatives. Every product and material considered for the building was analyzed. According to the website of the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the university evaluated and tested over 6,000 building materials, from wire coatings to furniture fabrics to lighting fixtures, and more than 1,200 companies publicly disclosed the ingredients of their products. The university approved more than 1,700 products meeting the rigorous HHBA requirements. Using sustainable materials paid off when the building was awarded a LEED Platinum certification and the Living Building Challenge Materials, Equity, and Beauty Petal certification.

Influencing Sustainability

Constructing healthier buildings is critical to HHBA’s goals, but the collaboration also uses Harvard’s considerable purchasing power and influence to send a message to manufacturers and buyers about the need for healthier materials. HHBA is in contact with businesses such as Google, Salesforce, and Kaiser Permanente, as well as the state of Massachusetts’ public school building system and affordable housing programs. If large, influential organizations like these push for safer products, such products may become more widely used and available throughout the marketplace. Henriksen describes the nascent push for healthier materials as “an incredible opportunity for leading manufacturers, if they already aren’t working on this, to very quickly gain market share and really set themselves apart by holistically addressing health, carbon, and equity.”

She hopes that HHBA’s example will serve as a roadmap for other organizations to help them remove toxic substances from the products they use and reduce upstream impacts. HHBA demonstrates that developing sustainable products is possible, organizations can use existing research for guidance, and nonprofits can help them scale, especially because “these materials are affordable, success is achievable, and it can give vendors a competitive advantage,” Henriksen added. Successful projects such as the Science and Engineering Complex provide both inspiration and practical guidance for organizations seeking to use healthier materials, starting with the building interior and working outward.

HHBA acknowledges Harvard University’s considerable role in an interconnected world. “At the end of the day, as our faculty pointed out, our supply chain and what we buy has inordinate impacts, especially upstream, where these chemicals of concern are created and put into products,” Henriksen explained. “It really is a public health, equity, and environmental justice issue. So, if we can send the market signal to turn the spigot off of these chemicals of concern and create healthier products that everyone can benefit from—that’s the goal.”

Heather Henriksen will give the opening keynote at PSX 2023 on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, from 8 to 9:30 a.m. Eastern time. PSX 2023 will be held Oct. 17–19 at Westin Boston Seaport District in Boston. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference program, or to register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is an editorial assistant at The Synergist and The SynergistNOW at AIHA


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