When People Make Toxic Tides Shift

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead

In 2002, the Denver-based insulation company Johns Manville decided that the science (and market) around the dangers of formaldehyde were too strong to ignore, and it stopped using the chemical to make insulation.

At the time, the company reported, “While there is no evidence to suggest that the level of formaldehyde released by traditionally bonded insulation is at all harmful, concern about indoor air quality has continued to be expressed by architects, builders, and consumers.”

By 2011, four other manufacturers needed to follow suit. And in Summer 2015, the last roll of insulation containing formaldehyde was produced.

At a recent Healthy Building Network discussion in Minneapolis, it was pointed out that the pressure to reduce this cancer-causing chemical was not led by the revelation that it caused cancer — that declaration wasn’t made until 2014, after a long battle with the American Chemistry Council lobby.

The pressure came from the market. It took home builders and consumers many years of collective action — and raising questions — to lead to product changes. Certain manufacturers wanted to be market leaders in offering more sustainable products.

Similar changes have happened with other toxic building materials that have spiked health issues over the decades — in paints, vinyl flooring, glues and treatments used in furnishings.

But, until there is a tipping point in market demand, materials using dubious toxins are still created and sold to consumers who don’t know what the impact of them might be – or whether there are safer options.

Until consumers ask questions and demand healthier materials, it is often easiest for less green-minded builders and manufacturers to not disclose the content of their products.

The Impact of “We”

We have smoke-free buildings. Energy Star appliances are popular choices. We require lead- and asbestos-free environments. But prior to public support, none of those things were standard.

It costs businesses money to change production methods. Many chemicals have been grandfathered in as “safe enough unless proven otherwise,” and thus are not subject to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scrutiny.

At the Healthy Building Network discussion, it was noted that in certain New York mortgage underwriting requirements, it is now required by compliance to include energy efficiency mandates. That has been “a game changer,” one participant said.

What if we could get Minnesota consumers to raise enough concern about our health issues (autism, asthma, cancer) that the Minnesota health care system, for example, would ask for green efficiency standards to be met in all new and improved construction efforts? What if we could make this a question of values — “can you tell me what is in these products, or can’t you?” What if our impact as consumers prompted more dangerous products to be discontinued?

Home Depot, for example, announced in 2015 that it would stop using certain vinyl flooring that was a danger especially to infants and toddlers. Lowes and others followed suit shortly after. Health impacts of these chemicals on developing bodies can include cancer, learning disabilities and asthma.

At the first “Sustainable We” forum, 40 people came together – including three Park commissioners – to talk about the growing public concern over the use of pesticides in the park system, the yields of chemical vs. organic community garden experiments, how toxic chemicals are regulated, and what we as residents wish we were doing differently as a community around these issues. One result of the group conversation was a general consensus that Minneapolis might be shifting its idea of what we consider “beautiful,” thanks to growing community voice.

As one participant said, a few years ago we wanted all lawns to be a limited height. But that policy was changed when more residents said “that’s no longer our aesthetic.” He believes Minneapolis is ready for a more complex vision of what we want our parks and yards to look like. “It’s okay if they aren’t perfect. If our ballfields aren’t lush. We’re coming to a different understanding of what a good-looking ecosystem looks like.”