Caveat Vendor: Bill Walsh of the Healthy Building Network is helping lead a campaign to get building product makers to report potential health dangers of their products.
Jane Shauck Caveat Vendor: Bill Walsh of the Healthy Building Network is helping lead a campaign to get building product makers to report potential health dangers of their products.

Bill Walsh lobbed his verbal hand grenade gently. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he asked, “when you bought that piece of drywall, you knew it was from China and what was in it?”

It’s a compelling question, given how high levels of sulfur in Chinese drywall sparked product liability lawsuits and ruined at least one construction supply firm. It’s also a contentious one, because what Walsh proposes not only would push the green movement in a new direction but also affect anyone who sells building materials by expanding what they should learn about goods they stock.

Walsh helps lead a campaign to get manufacturers to detail the ingredients in and health impacts of their products on top of any environmental impact statements they already may be providing. This bid to create a Health Product Declaration (HPD) is part of a movement called “radical transparency,” which calls for information about products to be as open as possible. With that information, consumers then can make more informed decisions on what to buy.

Rutgers University’s Daniel Goleman, who coined the term, likes to point out how websites like pull from hundreds of databases to rate and rank consumer products in terms of their environmental, health, and social impacts. Peter Syrett, who leads sustainability efforts in New York at the Perkins + Will architecture firm, credits increased transparency at Foxconn, a Chinese supplier for Apple Computer, with forcing Foxconn to improve its working conditions.

Walsh and others envision a multipage HPD statement that reveals which ingredients are in a product, all hazard warnings ascribed to those ingredients, and any green product certifications. The warnings would be based on research from agencies around the world, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Commission, the World Health Organization, Germany’s Federal Environment Agency, and California’s Proposition 65 list of suspected cancer-causing chemicals.

Thirty building product manufacturers—including GAF, BASF, Knauf, CertainTeed, Armstrong Ceilings, and Johns Manville—signed on this spring to test-drive the standard format that would go into creating a Health Product Declaration. A final format could come out later this year.

While its advocates say the HPD standard could reduce the pile of disclosures and certifications now rampant, some vendors may balk at the request to list every ingredient. As ProSales reported last year (“What’s In This Stuff?” June 2011), when manufacturers of wood-plastic composite decking submit material safety data sheets for their products, they frequently identify up to 50% of their ingredients as “proprietary.” And even when ingredients are named, regulators disagree over whether they’re cause for concern.

Other questions are likely to arise over just how much danger building materials pose. When Walsh spoke about HPD in May, he cited a Centers for Disease Control estimate that 23.4 million of America’s 110 million housing units are “unhealthy.” But that definition is based solely on four factors: the presence of rodents, water leaks, peeling paint in homes built before 1978, and the lack of a working smoke alarm.