Substances of Concern: Why Material Transparency Matters

The materials we select and specify to make up our buildings have a real meaningful impact on human health and the environment. Unfortunately, due to a lack of material transparency, that impact is frequently negative, damaging the environment and harming populations across the globe.

In February of this year, Chinese authorities were forced to face the tragic facts and admit that “cancer villages” existed in areas where harmful chemicals, many of which are banned in developed nations, are prevalent in current manufacturing processes. There are many that believe these chemicals are contributing to make cancer the number one killer in China, surpassing cardiovascular disease.

China’s problem is not a singular occurrence. The effects of harmful chemicals have been prevalent around the world and throughout history. For example, Jacobs Drive, a street in St. Gabriel, Louisiana with numerous manufacturing plants nearby, is often referred to as “cancer alley” due to its high death rate from cancer compared to other areas in the state and country. In 1987, 15 cancer victims lived on one block of Jacobs Drive and another seven a block over.

One might think such staggering numbers would have led to strong action years back, but the high rates of cancer continue in Louisiana (the state in the US with the second highest waste emission). Nor have these numbers led to global change. Apart from China’s “cancer cities,” new research in the Fort Saskatchewan area of Canada found spiked levels of carcinogenic air pollutants 1.3-butadiene and benzene – compounds that have been linked to liver, kidney and central nervous system damage as well as cancer. The study also found incidence of leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in men are higher in communities closest to the sources of pollution.

If there is any positive to be gleaned from these tragic outcomes, it is that we have a voice, our design choices do matter, and that designers are actively playing a role to bring about change. Demanding material transparency is the necessary first step.

The harmful chemicals causing these issues in Louisiana, China, Canada and many other places around the world have been identified as substances of concern. These substances are defined as chemicals or chemical compounds that may have serious and often irreversible effects on human health and the environment. Many of these substances are imbedded in products all around us and they are becoming the subject of increasing scrutiny through the lens of public health advocacy. 

While the direct impact on building occupants may be non-existent, the transparency movement recognizes the up and down stream effects. From extraction to manufacturing, occupancy and demolition, people in all contexts can be exposed to these harmful substances

Recognizing that we as a profession are unable to demand safer, alternative materials until we have identified those options is triggering an industry-wide movement to do just that. Cannon Design is a founding member of the Health Product Collaborative, and the organizer of the Health Product Declaration, a format for empowering firms, manufacturers and end users to understand the materials that make up their products. A number of other firms have stepped up to support the initiative including SmithGroup, HDR and Perkins + Will. Information about the HPD and other resources can be found here.

Every new designer, firm and manufacturer that commits to creating transparency strengthens the effort at large. Cannon Design and the other founding endorsers are issuing letters to all their manufacturers asking them to complete a HPD for all their products by Jan 1, 2015. The letter can be viewed here.

As stakeholders in the built environment with powerful influence through our product selection, the design profession can turn this challenge into an opportunity to demand and infuse transparency in manufacturing. If we are able to use the HPD and raise our collective voice in this discussion, we can drive real change that leads to a healthier world. 

For more on Material Transparency, check out these posts:

  • USGBC & Google to Advance Green Materials
  • Perkins + Will's "Transparency Project," creating a database of substances of concern
  • Rand Ekman, AIA, LEED Fellow, is the Director of Sustainability at Cannon Design, where he works with clients to help them tackle the driving sustainable challenges facing their built environments and businesses. Ekman is also the 2012 President of the AIA Chicago Board and a member of the USGBC Market Advisory Committee.

    About this author
    Cite: Rand Ekman. "Substances of Concern: Why Material Transparency Matters" 16 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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