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Washington state fails to protect low-income communities from toxic chemicals

By Colin Hartke

Community members living in affordable housing and construction workers building affordable housing in Washington State are left vulnerable to toxic chemicals under a recently updated regulation. The Department of Commerce (DOC) has released an update to the Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard (ESDS). It’s the state-wide regulation that must be followed for construction and remodeling of affordable housing that gets state funding, and the updated version lacks important protections from dangerous toxics.

Despite extensive comments provided by Toxic-Free Future, Healthy Building Network, National Resource Defense Council, and more than 200 comments sent by individuals, the new version of the ESDS addresses only one of the six key recommendations we and many others highlighted during the public comment period.

A bright spot: protection from lead in drinking water

We called on DOC to protect drinking water by requiring the identification and replacement of lead service lines, and the newly published ESDS takes the important step of making this mandatory. This will help protect residents from the harm that lead causes—including its devastating effects on the brain development of children.  

Important protections are missing: toxic flame retardants, PFAS, APEs, phthalates, and ingredient transparency

The updated ESDS sidesteps restrictions on other toxic chemicals, leaving residents and construction workers vulnerable to the health consequences:

  • Two-part spray foam used for insulation: We put a spotlight on the dangerous chemicals in two-part spray foam, including organohalogen flame retardants and diisocyanates. Research indicates that the flame retardants often used in two-part spray foam insulation may harm the thyroid and nervous system, and it is closely related to other flame retardants that are carcinogenic. The DOC failed to put in place a mandatory ban on the use of this insulation type, leaving the community at risk from these chemicals.
  • PFAS in carpet: Carpets are believed to be one of the most significant contributors to PFAS in indoor air, which leads to higher PFAS levels in our blood. This dangerous class of chemicals has been associated with harm to the immune system, organ toxicity, increased cholesterol, and cancer. The Department of Ecology has identified PFAS in carpet as a priority product to be regulated under the new Safer Products for Washington Act. DOC missed the mark by not placing a mandatory restriction on the use of this toxic, forever chemical in carpets.
  • APEs in paint: There are many health concerns with Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), including reproductive, nervous system, and immune effects. At the same time, APEs break down into persistent chemicals such as nonylphenol and octylphenol that also have a toxic effect on marine life. DOC left communities at risk to the impacts of APEs by not making it mandatory to use APE-free paint.
  • Ortho-phthalates in sealants: We called out the many health problems connected to ortho-phthalates, including obesity, reproductive harm, altered physical development, and asthma. They are commonly used in sealants, but the DOC did not take the opportunity to reduce occupant exposure by adding a mandatory restriction on ortho-phthalates.
  • Ingredient transparency: We need to know what chemicals are in building products so that we can avoid toxic chemicals that damage health. The national standard that forms the basis for the Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard includes ingredient transparency as an optional criterion. When construction projects use materials that have full disclosure of their content, it is easier for builders to choose healthier materials. It also allows the residents and the broader community to understand which toxics are being placed in our environment so that we can collectively take action. By failing to add ingredient transparency as an ESDS criterion, the DOC misses this important first step in reducing toxics in building materials.

Washington State has been a leader in stopping toxic chemicals at the source, but the new version of the ESDS is far from a leading standard for protecting low-income communities. Fortunately, the story doesn’t need to end here. The Department of Commerce has the ability to make interim updates to the standard, and we are urging the department to tackle the urgent concern of the ongoing use of spray foam. Residents of affordable housing have the right to a healthy environment, and Commerce should take this opportunity to prioritize health.