As we have already covered in Vision 2020, the plastic and foam insulation used by many green builders to make homes more energy efficient are actually coated with some of the most toxic flame retardants . These chemicals are semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) and can have serious health concerns. When tested, they have been shown to cause reproductive, thyroid, endocrine, developmental, and neurological disorders. In fact, flame retardants have been called the asbestos of our time.

In an informative presentation given at GreenBuild 2010, Arlene Blum, biophysical chemist and founder of the Green Policy Institute, tells the green building community why flame retardants and SVOCs need to be on our radar as we work toward improving environmental health. The facts are disturbing—and backed up by Blum’s research. You can view her presentation below.

While the use of SVOCs is certainly concerning, there is an even larger issue at hand. As Blum states in her presentation, America only has one regulation for chemicals before they are released into the environment—The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act. Passed in 1976, the regulation grandfathered in more than 62,000 substances that were considered “safe,” basically making it impossible for the EPA to ban even the most hazardous chemicals—including asbestos.

Until the U.S. undergoes a chemical policy reform, the responsibility lies in the hands of you--the end user--to avoid SVOCs, as well as other chemicals of high concern.

Perhaps the greater lesson we can learn from SVOCs is that they are found in a building material we thought was getting us closer to sustainability. Sometimes what appears to be a greener option may actually be taking us out of the frying pan, into the fire. Moving forward, green builders and their project teams need to closely evaluate any alternative materials and practices they adopt along their journey, ensuring that we are building truly sustainable--and healthy--homes.

Master Speaker: Arlene Blum from U.S. Green Building Council on Vimeo.