Dr. Marilyn Black
Dr. Marilyn Black

In 2001, Marilyn Black, Ph.D., founded the Greenguard Environmental Institute, a nonprofit, third-party certification program for the selection of environmentally preferred, low-emitting products. She also founded Air Quality Sciences, a testing and research service focused on chemical and biological air pollution. Both organizations were recently acquired by Underwriters Laboratory (UL). As a researcher, Black pioneered the study of the health impact of low doses of chemical exposure, and how to reduce it. She holds Ph.D., M.S., and B.S. degrees in chemistry and environmental health. What are the most urgent indoor environmental challenges we face today? 

We know that many of the materials we use to construct, clean, and operate facilities can create significant and potentially harmful chemical exposure. While everyone talks about sustainable buildings being inherently healthy, studies show this isn’t always the case--even some buildings that meet green construction standards. The requirements for energy efficiency are often at odds with indoor environmental quality. Reducing outdoor air ventilation often results in elevated chemical levels that can be harmful to occupants. You do have to ventilate it right, but you also have to use the right low-emitting materials.  If you put in materials emitting high levels of pollutants, it does not matter how much you ventilate.  The key is a achieving a balance between energy efficiency and good indoor air quality, and making sure you use low-emitting, nontoxic products.

Have the chemicals changed, or only the way we build? 

It is not unusual to measure new, complex mixtures of low-level chemicals emitting from products. We do not know if they result from new chemical formulations or synergistic reactions.  We face two additional challenges relative to chemicals. One is the significance of climate change and its impact on materials and their chemical releases: Higher extended temperatures and humidity may result in the release of chemicals that may not have occurred under more traditional conditions. Second, we can now measure a wider range of chemicals and at lower levels. We're finding industrial chemicals that are persistent in the environment, and also are finding them in people, including newborn babies. All of this presents new challenges in assessing and managing the health impact of chemical exposure.

Last year, a chemical industry group formed to push back on emerging concerns about chemical exposure, saying much of the alarm lacked scientific basis. How do you react to that?

We use more than 80,000 chemicals in commerce today, but only about 200 have been fully evaluated for adverse health effects.  As a precaution, we are trying to limit this exposure because while we really don’t know the harmful effects and critical exposure limits for many individual chemicals or their mixtures,  we do know that improving indoor air quality also improves quality of  living, productivity, and even school test scores.

There’s a strong effort to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to require manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of industrial chemicals before they are used in commerce. When the TSCA was enacted over three decades ago, many chemicals were grandfathered in and were not tested by the EPA for their toxicity. We want manufacturers disclosing and providing better data on chemicals used so we can make good decisions based on sound science and prevent health hazards from being introduced into the environment. We want to preempt concern and not have to wait 30 years to learn the harm. Experiments should be done in the lab, not the environment.

Manufacturers are also looking for ways to innovate products through new technologies that may include reformulations with new chemistries, encapsulation, and manufacturing process changes so that people are not exposed.  Manufacturers have made tremendous improvement putting low-emitting products into the marketplace. Today’s formaldehyde levels have been lowered dramatically and are about 20 percent or less of what they were 20 years ago. In most new construction material categories you can find a variety of low-emitting materials at a reasonable price.

How will Greenguard change now that it’s under UL? 

Greenguard was an ANSI-accredited standard-setting certification organization, following ANSI processes and using ISO accredited laboratories, so there’s not a lot that’s going to change. Being part of UL gives us the opportunity to start looking at products more holistically and evaluate products for a breadth of safe and sustainable attributes. Currently, Greenguard-certified products have a single focus in IAQ.  We now have the opportunity to expand product impact and performance evaluations and obtain objective facts and data.  Right now we are looking at the attributes of fire resistant products.  The question is, “Can we create products that are nontoxic, flame resistant and economical?”

We have just started engaging stakeholders in this discussion. UL will be co-hosting a symposium with health and safety organizations in April on the convergence of fire safety and chemical toxicity. We plan to do the same with energy efficiency and health. We want to engage stakeholders in a constructive manner so that we can create a road map for sound and comprehensive progress together. After all, we share the same planet and wish for safe living and working environments for all.

What’s on the horizon that might make a new home purchased in 2020 healthier than a home bought today?

What I hope, and it’s a little futuristic, is that we can develop the biological assessment tools needed to make timely risk assessments of industrial chemicals and manufactured products. Right now our assessment tools remain antiquated and force us to do a lot of extrapolation from one set of data to reach conclusions about another set for safe exposure thresholds. There is still a lot of ongoing research to develop biological assays that can predict human effects of low-level chemicals, and this will help us dramatically.

Air improvement technologies have been suggested as a future silver bullet, but filtration and purification are not very effective for large volumes of air as you have in a home or building. But a promising technology is developing in chemistries and new materials that can be applied to building surfaces, some of these that can transform or sequester pollutants. For example, some chemistries can react with formaldehyde and change it into benign water and carbon dioxide. Early laboratory research shows these technologies work. Now we have to move research into the field and see if it works in real life.

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability: Energy Efficiency + Building Science, Building Design + Performance, Materials + Products, Sustainable Communities, Water Efficiency, Codes, Standards + Rating Systems, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Economics + Financing. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.