Q&A: Bill Walsh on HPD

Executive director of Healthy Building Network on the Health Products

Since 2000 when the Healthy Building Network (HBN) was founded, the advocacy group has been researching and making public their findings on environmentally friendly building materials and policies. In 2006 HBN introduced the Pharos Project, to publish information on the environmental impact of building materials commonly used by today’s architecture and construction industry sectors. In 2009, Pharos received an award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which called the project "a revolutionary on-line tool for evaluating and comparing the health, environmental and social impacts of building materials in a comprehensive and transparent way." In my series of Q&As about the Health Product Declaration (HPD), I asked Bill Walsh, founder of HBN and executive director, to provide the public advocate’s point of view. Here he talks about some initial victories and the dogged efforts of a small group of dedicated professionals (30 people in all) who have volunteered for the battle to clean up our environment, one building product at a time.

Susan S. Szenasy:  Recently you wrote in Healthy Building News that "March 17th marks the 10th anniversary of the EPA order that made it illegal to use the arsenic-based pesticide CCA (chromated copper arsenate) to treat wood intended for most residential uses," and that, as a result, "the amount of arsenic used in the United States [has dropped] from over twenty metric tons annually to approximately six" since 2003. What do these hopeful numbers tell you about the inroads HPD can make on helping to eliminate toxic materials from our built environment?

Bill Walsh: The Healthy Building Network initiated the effort to create the Health Product Declaration [HPD] because informed customers are the most influential driver of healthier building products. With pressure treated wood, once consumers understood that there were two equivalent types of product on the market – that with arsenic, and that without – the writing was on the wall. Chemical manufacturers voluntarily withdraw their requests to EPA for an exemption to arsenic restrictions. That made it easy for EPA to take the action it did. As HPDs gain currency, unnecessary, avoidable toxic hazards will be the first thing to go. For example, I expect we will see a steady transition out of chemical flame-retardants in many uses where they are unnecessary, such as below grade foam insulation, and provide no added safety benefit, such as in upholstery foams. Leading manufacturers have also said that the HPD will create an incentive for companies to make quiet transitions in order to avoid disclosing problematic chemicals. Over the long-term, the HPD is going to create incentives for continuous improvement toward ever-healthier building products. But the first thing the HPD is going to accomplish is a rapid acceleration away from hazards that can be avoided today.

SSS: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the healthiest place to be, where are we today in the fight for healthy building products? Consider here what has been put in place during the past decade by such active programs as HBN’s Pharos project, GreenSpec, Cradle to Cradle, Perkins + Will’s Precautionary List, among others. I’m interested in knowing the baseline established by these programs together, and how that baseline informs the ability to HPD to help reshape the market.

BW: Let me put this answer in perspective. We’ve been consciously grappling with making our building materials less toxic for about as long as we’ve been Googling. When asked to characterize the state of our Internet search capabilities today, Marissa Mayer, now CEO of Yahoo and formerly Google’s vice president of search, described that field as still in its “infancy” when measured against her vision of what is to come. Our capabilities to create truly healthy building products are no more advanced. I would say we are at a 2 on the scale of 1-10.  The tools you mention are, like Google search, only the beginning of the basic infrastructure that will achieve our vision of a building products industry that promotes the best environmental, health, and social outcomes. But we are a lot better off than we were without them. The HPD is the next breakthrough initiative that is going to accelerate the pace of positive change. So, a 2 doesn’t represent a shortcoming, it marks a beginning.

SSS: It seems to me that these existing organizations, working together can help create a truly healthy built environment. But everyone wants to be a star today. How can each group–important as they are but weak by themselves–become strong supportive players, like those great character actors in old Hollywood movies who supported plot lines, character development for the good of the story?

BW: The story of the HPD is the story you are hoping for! We assembled an unpaid working group of about 30 people who agreed to embark on a task that was seemingly hopeless, and certainly thankless. Their employers supported an astounding number of volunteer hours for two years, earning far less corporate recognition than would have come from easier and higher profile endeavors. Maybe that’s the key – issue a Churchillian challenge of nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat – and you can be confident that whoever shows up isn’t looking for a star turn!

SSS: How would you asses the importance of Google, coming to the aid of HPD with a $3 million grant to the US Green Building Council, in moving the corporate sector toward showing a genuine concern for the health and well being of their employees? I ask this, in light of the many recessions I've lived through, including that most recent one, when people, often called the most valued assets of business, are nevertheless the first to be cut from the bottom line. In this context of a traditionally de-valued workforce, the health of the workforce seems to be a radical new idea. Is it and what has to happen for this stance to be largely adopted by business?

BW: Google’s efforts to eliminate avoidable hazards in the building products it uses is part of a an overall program to promote employee health and well being that earned it Fortune Magazine’s designation as the best company in America to work for, for the fourth year in a row. As you might expect, this effort is intensively data driven. My understanding of Google’s grant to the USGBC is designed to make it easier for other businesses to do what Google does, leveraging their experience, without reinventing the wheel. Like anyone who has engaged in serious materials evaluation, Google understands that the first barrier to be overcome in order to achieve widespread adoption of healthier building practices is the lack of information about the contents of building products. This is why the HPD has such widespread support about green building leaders. The grant to the USGBC is designed to overcome this barrier by accelerating the adoption of the HPD with the incentive of a LEED credit. As strange as it may seem, simply knowing what is in the building products one specifies is at this point a radical notion.

SSS: As a follow up, how can the Healthy Building Network's commitment to the goal of "achieving environmental justice," including poor communities where dirty environmental practices still prevail, make some dramatic inroads? Can HPD help in this mission?

BW: What I have found is that when building owners and designers understand the positive impact their decisions can have in a heavily impacted community, they are inspired to act. That is why so many people avoid vinyl-building products despite 20 years of greenwash by that industry. HBN has spent the past several years refining tools like our Pharos Project and the HPD so that we can make it easier for the building industry to recognize the positive impact their decisions have on people’s health and well being – and not just for building occupants. It used to be that as an ally of those front line communities that are overburdened with toxic chemical releases, the best HBN could do was expose injustice after the fact. Now we are in a position to help companies avoid being associated with a dirty factory in their supply chain before a scandal breaks. Even better, we work with manufacturers every day, quietly and behind the scenes, to accelerate the adoption of healthier formulations and practices, which is a much better outcome for all of us.

Read about the chairman's and manufacturer's points of view about HPD.

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