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Transparency is good for business

Peter Syrett, AIA, LEED® AP BD+C

Associate Principal
Senior Project Designer
Perkins+Will architects

 border= “Regulation is bad for business” — it is an all too common refrain in the business world today. This old argument is now being used by industry to lobby against efforts to require more transparency about chemicals in the proposed reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. I think that this is a misguided position that is blind to the growing business opportunities offered by the green building industry.

Construction has long been the cornerstone of our domestic economy. Even in today’s sluggish economy, sustainable building is a fast-growing business sector . The green building movement has grown exponentially in the last two decades. Since its inception in 1994, the United States Green Building Council’s(USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system has grown to have over 35,000 participating projects, comprising over 4.5 billion square feet of construction in all 50 states and in 91 countries.

This huge growth demonstrates that consumers understand the relationship between human health and the built environment. This can be seen in many ways, but most clearly in the growing popularity of the LEED rating system, which rewards builders for avoiding toxic chemicals. For example, there are credits that promote low VOC emitting materials and a pilot credit for avoiding the use of products that contain dioxins and halogenated organic compounds. Dioxins and halogenated organic compounds are persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemicals (PBTs) that are commonly found in building materials — and in our bodies.

Being an architect comes with many responsibilities, but none is more important than the obligation to safeguard the health and safety of the people who live and work in the buildings we create. Yet, because of the total lack of transparency in the current chemical management system, American architects cannot fully meet that obligation.

For architects to make informed, responsible decisions, chemical manufacturers must provide hazard, use, and exposure data to the EPA for all their chemicals and this data should be made available to the public. My hope is that, when Congress sets about reforming TSCA, it will ensure that all chemical data is lucid and direct, and that all chemicals that pose a known or a suspected concern to human health and the environment are clearly identified.

Each morning, you can flip to the backside of your $4.50 cereal box and read all the ingredients. This level of transparency hasn’t hurt the $500 billion a year food industry. Americans should be able to get the same information for the $10 sheet of drywall a contractor is hanging in their living room. Chemical transparency is the wave of the future — those to embrace it first will reap the most financial benefits.