Green buildings need safer chemicals policy reform

Businesses do not always have free and open access to the information needed to make responsible decisions concerning chemical ingredients in products. That places American business at a disadvantage because we lack the ability to economically assess the risks posed by many of the chemicals we use in our products. Current federal chemicals policy does not require companies to disclose chemical ingredients down the supply chain, forcing manufacturers to perform expensive chemical content analysis on their own. If nothing is done to give American manufacturers the ability to know the chemicals within the materials we use, we will be unable to advance the market-driven opportunities presented by new, innovative safer chemicals. America will lose this chance to build a stronger, more stable economy. 

Construction Specialties is a privately held U.S. company that designs and manufactures specialty products for buildings. Our environmental commitment is to create products that lower the environmental impact on the buildings they become part of and to conduct business in manner that endeavors to have minimal impact on our environment. Yet we are often challenged in meeting these goals by the lack of toxicity data on chemicals and the lack of transparency on the chemicals in the materials we purchase. Manufacturers often confront the reality that they do not even know the chemicals in their products, let alone whether those chemicals are safe for human health and the environment.

Our current regulatory system for managing toxic chemicals — the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has failed to promote the use of safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. Fortunately, Congress is now moving to revise TSCA. Both the House and the Senate are considering legislation that would require comprehensive safety data on all chemicals in commerce. While safety data is essential, two additional elements, now missing from legislative proposals, are necessary to promote the use of safer chemicals in products.

First, businesses need greater transparency on the chemicals in the products they buy. Safer chemicals policy reform should include a requirement that all products from chemical manufacturers to final product manufacturers include a chemical ingredient profile — a listing of the chemical ingredients in the product. Legislation can be written in a way to protect confidential business information, yet provide critical information on chemical content across the business supply chain.

Second, Congress should also require final product manufacturers to provide consumers with information on chemicals of high concern in their products. At a minimum, consumers should know if chemicals of high concern to human health and the environment are in the products they purchase. Such a requirement will generate demand for safer, greener chemicals.

We urge the congressional committees working on chemicals policy reform to include business-to-business disclosure of chemicals and disclosure of chemicals of high concern to consumers in their proposals before the August recess.

Chemicals policy reform, if done well, will support the market movement to safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in products.  Congress, along with the building sector, has an opportunity to improve indoor air quality and thereby human health and the environment through the greater use of inherently safer chemicals in building products.

Howard Williams is vice president of Construction Specialties, a member of the Business-NGO Working Group (BizNGO). BizNGO is a unique collaboration of business and NGO leaders who are creating a roadmap to the widespread use of safer chemicals in consumer products.

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