May 30, 2024

Chemicals, PFAS, the EPA and the Building Industry

At HML we evaluate the materials and building products that surround us for their impact on human health and on the environment. We examine the entire lifecycle of a material and its ingredients –from raw extraction from the earth to processing and production, its use phase, through to its reuse or unfortunate disposal. We also ask who and how people are affected. 

Toxics can be a significant pollutant from building products at every stage of their lifecycle. Recent regulations announced by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are a remarkable step in the right direction towards eliminating the terrible impacts on human and environmental health from the production of building products.

The new regulation on toxic emissions in the air

On March 28, 2024, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a new regulation aimed at reducing toxic pollutants from over 200 chemical plants nationwide, targeting chemicals that are known carcinogens, like—ethylene oxide and chloroprene. Chloroprene is an essential ingredient used to make vinyl and LVT (Luxury Vinyl Tile) which is currently one of the most popular flooring materials used in homes, schools, prisons, as well as high-end hotels and restaurants. These same chemicals are commonly found in adhesives and polyurethane foam which are also used in our buildings, as well as solvents, antifreeze, textiles, detergents, and pharmaceuticals. The chemical plants that produce substances, such as chloroprene, are typically located in Black or Latino communities, which disproportionately suffer elevated rates of cancer and respiratory issues as a result of their proximity to these factories. It’s unjust and indefensible.  

The new regulation mandates monitoring and reducing emissions, affecting the production of chemicals like benzene, (used to make plastics, resins, and nylon and synthetic fibers) and 1,3-butadiene (used to produce synthetic rubber products). Despite industry and state oppositions and previous legal battles, the EPA is pushing forward. The attention given to improving community health as a result of these initiatives is imperative and we are encouraged by this move. 

Background on chemical policies

In the United States, the regulation of chemicals that can be hazardous to people’s health has not been a priority. It has been slower and less comprehensive compared to other countries, such as in Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan. Regulatory differences lie in areas such as risk assessment, testing requirements, and the restriction of hazardous substances. Why has this been the case? 

The United States primarily relies on laws such as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to regulate chemicals, which has a limited scope and has been ineffective in regulating chemicals. In the U.S, TSCA historically placed a heavy burden on regulators to prove harm, rather than requiring comprehensive data about toxicity and environmental impacts from the producers of chemicals. The TSCA underwent significant reform with a law passed in 2016 called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. This reform includes improvements such as: mandatory requirement for EPA to evaluate existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines, risk-based chemical assessments, increased public transparency for chemical information, and consistent source of funding for EPA to carry out the responsibilities under the new law1. Though regulation is still far from where it needs to be to protect communities, it is undoubtedly a step forward.  

In contrast, the European Union has implemented the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation since 2007. It is more stringent and comprehensive than that of the US. Under REACH, companies that produce or import chemicals are required to provide extensive data on their safety and environmental impact. This data is used for risk assessment and allows for decision-making regarding chemical authorization or restriction. 

Generally speaking, chemical regulations outside the US have operated under a precautionary principle, allowing for regulatory action to be taken even with scientific uncertainty or existing potential risks to human health or the environment. These kinds of principles prioritize prevention and place the burden on industry to prove the safety of chemicals before they are allowed on the market. In contrast, the U.S. regulatory approach has taken a reactive approach, requiring evidence of harm before taking regulatory action.

The new EPA regulation on water and PFAS

On April 10, 2024 the EPA issued a groundbreaking regulation mandating municipal water systems to significantly reduce PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in tap water. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment (take hundreds or thousands of years to break down/lasting millions of years) and harms  our bodies. PFAS have been linked to myriad health issues, including cancer. The regulation, described as “life changing” by EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, includes: 

  • For PFOA and PFOS, EPA is setting a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal, a non-enforceable health-based goal, at zero. This reflects the latest science showing that there is no level of exposure to these contaminants without risk of health impacts, including certain cancers.2
  • An enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels at 4.0 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, individually. This standard will reduce exposure from these PFAS in our drinking water to the lowest levels that are feasible for effective implementation.3

The widespread presence of PFAS in everyday products, including building products, are a significant source of chemical pollution. Public health advocates emphasize the urgent need for action, despite concerns and pushback about costs from industry and municipalities. 

How Regulations on Toxic Pollutants Impact the Building Industry

The choices we make about our building products matter. Our choices reverberate far beyond the walls and structures we design and build. They impact the health and well-being of people that live near factories where  building products are made and where local people work. These new regulatory developments reveal the interconnectedness between the building industry and environmental health.  

Typically, toxic chemicals are present in the entire lifecycle of building materials. Following the lifespan of some of these materials, we can find benzene (a known carcinogen), for example, in the air around landfills and water near production sites. From insulation to adhesives, material ingredients pose risks to people living near production plants and waste sites, construction workers installing materials, and to future occupants.

For more related to this topic, we recommend Episode 3 and Episode 4 from Season 2 of our podcast Trace Material, and the on-demand video “What’s so Luxurious about LVT?”.

The more attention and regulation on the use and presence of PFAS, the more manufacturers will need to reassess their reliance on these harmful substances. Additionally, as professionals in the building industry become more aware of the consequences of their choices, we hope to see a decrease in demand for products containing harmful chemicals and an increase in demand for healthier building materials. 

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