Q&A: HPD, the Manufacturer’s Point of View

Who’s responsible for making our products healthy?

The U.S. EPA, the European Union Commission on the Environment, the State of California are among the government organizations that have come out on the side of healthy materials for our built environment. In addition, there are a growing number of associations and firms engaged in collecting data on toxic materials that should be avoided, sharing their information with the public. They include the Healthy Building Network ‘s Pharos Project, Clean Production Action, Perkins + Will’s Precautionary List, Living Building Challenge and that organization’s Watch List, and the various LEED programs, such as HC and Pilot.

Most recently, the first open standard format for reporting the content and hazards in building products was launched at Greenbuild 2012. Called the Health Product Declaration (HPD) Open Standard Version 1, the program is managed by a non-profit group of collaborators. The HPD Collaborative is lead by the Pilot Project Committee of 29 building product manufacturers and 50 expert reviewers from across the building industry. The collaborative is in the process of developing, maintaining, and evolving the HPD Open Standard to meet the growing demand from the design and specifying community for health information on the many products used in our buildings. Included in this pilot group is the Canadian furniture manufacturer Teknion. In an effort to build the case for HPD, starting from the supplier’s point of view, I asked Tracy Backus, LEED AP ID+C, director of sustainability programs at Teknion U.S. to answer a few questions. Here she talks about what one manufacturer is doing to safeguard human health, and the Earth that gives us life.

Susan S. Szenasy: As a member of the Health Product Declaration (HPD) Working Group, in the manufacturing sector, and with Teknion’s long-term commitment to environmental health, could you tell us why your firm has decided to join this particular group? And what are your hopes for outcomes?

Tracy Backus: We were asked by Google to participate originally.  As we looked more closely at our history and how Teknion has already made steps to reduce chemicals from our products, like PVC, it was a natural for us to begin the work of full disclosure to the public. The challenge was developing a method that worked for all manufactures of building materials. That is the work of the HPD.

SSS: I understand you heard about HPD from a client, Google, in search of more transparency in products’ chemical/material content, as these relate to human health effects. What was Google looking for?

TB: Google is aligning its business to protect the health and well-being of it’s employees by building and procuring products that eliminate chemicals of concern, identified by the EPA, Living Building Challenge, and the National Cancer Institute. They are investing and, therefore, expect the same of manufacturers to advance the industry to research and develop safer materials for the built environment.

SSS: There is a scary list of chemicals that the building industry continues to specify, including the products that are next to our bodies in the interior environment. Would you tell us which ingredients are of most concern for health/environmentally-conscious furniture manufacturers? And explain why.

TB: They are all a concern and the challenge right now is availability. LEED and others have been pushing the elimination of Urea Formaldehyde in building materials but not in furniture. Added Urea Formaldehyde is a binding agent for wood materials and alternative formaldehydes perform differently, perhaps not as well, so the drive now is to find materials that perform and are safe.

SSS: I’m very much interested in learning about the goals Teknion is setting to clean up its material supply. What changes are you making now?

TB: Teknion has reduced and in most cases eliminated the use of PVC for edge banding, electrics and gaskets where possible. Additionally, we have worked hard to eliminate flame-retardants (PBDEs) from everything possible as we refine legacy and well as introduce new products.

SSS: To reach the ultimate goal of restorative products–things we live with-work-with-surround-ourselves-with that don’t harm us and the Earth–what needs to happen in the furniture- manufacturing sector (clearly your industry can’t clean up the environment alone, but every industry has to do its part)?

TB: Our biggest commitment has to be that we are willing to listen and react to industry partners that have evidence based science on these issues; and to address the issues quickly and cost effectively.  We have to push forward and continue to change and evolve as good stewards of the planet and the people who occupy it. It sounds simple. But it’s a difficult task. We build a product and that product is relying on the architecture and design community to validate the shift of these initiatives as valuable. If we all aren’t in this together there is a failure in advancing a safer built environment.

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