The Healthy Materials Myth

07/31/2013 05:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013

The building industry wrestles with the chemical content of its products.

Ever since Silent Spring appeared 50 years ago, concerns about industrial chemicals have continued to mount. While movies such as Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action have colored the popular imagination with fears about community-wide hazards such as toxic waste spills, in actuality the greater risk may lie with everyday products, since significant levels of hazardous substances can leach out of commonplace items in homes and workplaces. People spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, where the number of pollutants can be as much as 100 times higher than outdoors.

In recent years, architects and builders have shown a growing interest in identifying and removing harmful substances in the products used to make buildings. For example, Google's progressive Healthy Materials Program aims to "design out harmful man-made chemicals" and "eliminate toxics" from buildings by screening products through rigorous standards such as the EPA's "Chemicals of Concern" list and the Living Building Challenge's "Red List." Google is also one of the first to endorse the new Health Product Declaration (HPD), the first open reporting standard for chemical content in building materials. The HPD promises to transform the industry by spurring more transparency among manufacturers.

All these efforts are signs of significant progress. But they also raise a big question: Does taking the toxic chemicals out of a material really make it "healthy"?

"Health is the absence of sickness," says chemist John Warner, who with Paul Anastas defined the principles of green chemistry in 1998. "I personally can't imagine some line in the spectrum that we define as 'healthy' -- it's all relative. Is an Olympic athlete 'healthier' than someone free from any sickness? At some level it becomes subjective. Who decides?"

Maybe the World Health Organization. It defines "health" as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" [emphasis added]. In this sense, a material isn't "healthy" unless it helps induce that state of complete well-being. According to dictionary definitions, the word can refer either to the state of the thing itself (a healthy person) or the effect it has (promoting health), and synonyms include "prosperous" and "flourishing."

Reducing harm, then, is not the same as creating health. Health care professionals know this -- most of us misquote their credo as "do no harm," but the original Latin, primum non nocere, means "first, do no harm." Avoiding ailment and injury is only the initial step toward encouraging health. Arsenic wouldn't be "healthier" than hemlock if it killed you less quickly.

Think about food. Diet sodas aren't good for you -- they just don't have as many calories. Nutritionists avoid the term "healthy foods," because no single food provides all the essential nutrients to promote health; instead, they prefer to consider foods as the components of a healthy diet. Similarly, with buildings it might be wiser to emphasize healthy environments, of which materials are an important ingredient. Research repeatedly shows how abundant daylight and fresh air can stimulate health and well-being inside buildings (mostly by mimicking better conditions outside), but to date no studies have shown that benign materials can do the same.

This isn't just a semantics issue. Last month, PepsiCo settled a $9 million lawsuit because of misleading claims about the ingredients of its Naked juice products being "natural," a label they have been forced to remove. Now imagine building product manufacturers advertising their materials as "healthy," simply because Google uses them.

Learning more about what's in materials is good, because it helps us get rid of the stuff that harms us. But until the building industry agrees on what a "healthy material" is, the language itself could do more harm than good.