Understanding Toxics: Sorting the ‘Rs’ from the Greenwash

David Baggs, CEO and Technical Director

 

The issue of toxicity of compounds and their effects on the human body, animals, plants and ecological systems is generally considered important by most people, but few know the meanings of the important codes and systems designed to help us understand the importance of toxic compounds and their effects.

Toxic compounds are commonplace in products we use every day and specify and use within our buildings including paints, glues, sealants, carpet, vinyl or PVC products, composite wood (MDF and Particle Board), foams, fire resistance and stain protection  compounds (on fabrics, insulation, ceiling tiles etc), insecticides, petrol and many other products. Toxic compounds released into indoor air in offices have in the past lead to 'Sick Building Syndrome' and other illnesses and dramatic increases in staff absenteeism and loss of productivity.

This article will explain some of the key concepts and meanings and provide reference points for understanding and research about toxics in the home, business and in particular, products and materials.

A compound is considered toxic if it has the ability to produce adverse effects in living organisms i.e. damage an organ system, disrupt a biochemical process, or disturb an enzyme system. This not only includes effects that cause classic 'poisoning' but often subtle unseen or very long term, even intergenerational impacts on hormonal (endocrine) systems or DNA at the genetic level.

Endocrine disruptors are compounds that mimic, block, or interfere with hormone production, and/or metabolism and/or excretion and that consequently cause malfunction of the endocrine system and creates potential malfunction/s of the reproductive and/or nervous, and/or immune systems sometimes even leading to cancer. The most typical source of these compounds is some plasticisers in PVCs and vinyl.

toxic sign.pngThe degree of toxicity of a compound or mixture is measured by the dose or concentration at which 50% of a reference population of organisms will die i.e. the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration (LD50 or LC50) level.  A Category 1 compound with Acute Toxicity has an LD50 in the 5-50mg/kg bodyweight when taken by mouth or absorbed through the skin. Category 5 chemicals or those with relatively low acute toxicity hazard risk are expected to have oral or dermal LD50 in the 2000-5000mg/kg bodyweight range.

There are thousands of chemicals for which the toxicity levels have been assessed within the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). This system has been brought into law in many countries by European legislation such as the EU Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures and GHS derivatives globally.

Any toxic impact is the result of both the dose provided and the level of exposure. When considering the safe level of dose and exposure, the minimum level or concentration at which there is no adverse observed effect (NAOEL or NAOEC) is used, particularly in occupational health and safety (OH&S) contexts.

The studies that have considered these issues for the GHS have resulted in a range of toxicity and safety risks categories that are used to simply characterise the range of potential impacts of chemicals and compounds called Risk Phrases (R-Phrase) or Safety Phrases (S-Phrase). Below are a few examples:

R-Phrases - Human Health

R26: Very toxic by inhalationR27: Very toxic in contact with skin
R28: Very toxic if swallowed
R32: Contact with acids liberates very toxic gas
R33: Danger of cumulative effects
R35: Causes severe burns
R39: Danger of very serious irreversible effects
R45: May cause cancer

R-Phrases - Ecosystem Quality

R50: Very toxic to aquatic organisms
R59: Dangerous for the ozone layer
R53: May cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment
R58: May cause long-term adverse effects in the environment
R56: Toxic to soil organisms
R57: Toxic to bees

toxic bottle.pngSafety Phrases are related more to specific warnings about safe use such as:

S22: Do not breathe dust
S23: Do not breathe gas/fumes/vapour/spray (appropriate wording to be specified by the manufacturer)
S27: Take off immediately all contaminated clothing
S30: Never add water to this product
S41: In case of fire and/or explosion do not breathe fumes

Any material or product that has potential toxicity or safety risks are required by most developed countries to provide on request a Materials Data Sheet (MDS), also referred to as Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and print the risk on product labels. Manufacturers will often miniaturise these warnings and downplay them graphically, but if you want to understand the potential impact of a product asking for the MSDS can sometimes be the most reliable way to determine these R and S Phrases for any product, although these are not always the easiest documents to read!

ecolabels.png

Globally there are a variety of country based ISO 14024 Type 1 ecolabels and third party verification schemes that rely on this system to approve products for safety including the Nordic Swan, German Blue Angel, European Flower, US green Seal, Singapore Green Label etc and Conformance Assessment Bodies such as ecospecifier global with its Type 1 ecolabel GreenTag™ Certification and also its Verified Products Program.

The ecospecifier global Green Tag™ is a third party, green building product rating and certification system, underpinned by rigorous scientific and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) processes. Its advanced, robust LCA certification methodology developed exclusively by ecospecifier is a world first.

The Green Tag™ ecolabel rating positions a product within the top end of the green product market enabling manufacturers to be able for the first time to fully communicate the work they have undertaken to improve the ecological and health benefits of their products. It is an 'umbrella' system with two separate Certification systems contained in the Standard.

Green Tag™ LCARate

A detailed life cycle assessment (LCA) rating of the product compared to the worst case business as usual (BAU) product commonly available on the market. This rating is reflected by a Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum tier attainment.

LCARate is designed to be adopted by Government and Corporate Codes and Green Purchasing Policy as well as Green Building Rating Tools and retail displays. LCARate is underpinned also by ecospecifier's Cautionary Assessment Process (ES CAP) which is designed around categorization of all the 'R' phrases and dose levels that approximate the 'no observed affect exposure level' or NOAEL, or the 'No Observed Adverse Effects Concentration' NOAEC levels of constituents.

Green Tag™ GreenRate

A separate bespoke system designed to accommodate Green Building Council, specific government or corporate accreditation requirements where this is desired, in addition to LCARate.

The GreenRate Program is an accredited third party Certification System for the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and New Zealand (NZGBC) under their new Green Star™ Materials Calculator credits which is a major business driver in the flooring, walls, partitions, ceilings, joinery and furniture sectors.   GreenRate Australasia certifies products to the new GBCA and NZGBC Materials Calculator rating. This rating is reflected by a Level A, B or C attainment recognition.

GreenTag™ GreenRate is designed to be adopted by Government and Corporate Codes and Green Purchasing Policy as well as Green Building Rating Tools and retail groups.

GreenRate is also underpinned by ecospecifier's Cautionary Assessment Process (ES CAP) which is designed around categorization of all the 'R' phrases and dose levels that approximate the NOAEL, or NOAEC levels of constituents.

GreenTag™ is already one of the most accredited third party certifiers globally, being in accordance with:

  • ISO 14024 Type 1 Ecolabel Rating system
  • ISO 14040 peer reviewed and audited LCA
  • ISO 14025 Type 111 Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs)
  • ISO 14065 Greenhouse Gas Analysis for Conformance Assessment Bodies
  • ISO 9001 Certified Quality Management System

ecospecifier has devised its Verified Products Standard also based on ES CAP and the GHS to categorise products toxicity potential by 'R' Phrase analysing every constituent down to less than 100ppm (0.1%) with its exposure risk to determine NAOEL/NAOEC categories. Based on the results a Verified Products Mark may be awarded and the product included on a relevant ecospecifier database. The product assessment will if appropriate include a tiered set of cautionary warnings about the product throughout the various stages of its life-cycle after a risk analysis is performed.

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council's new Estidama Pearls Design Rating System also uses the GHS R-Phrase system to categorise those products to be excluded from the buildings under the Liveable Buildings' Non Hazardous Materials and Recycled Content Credits. The Pearls Design System was the first Green Building Rating System in the world to consider the overall toxicity of all building components rather than just the limited toxicity of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from a few interior products and the first to use this approach.

During 2010 BREEAM™ introduced a health of materials credit and in December 2010, LEED® introduced materials toxicity credits into its Pilot Credit library for trial.

The important thing to understand about R-Phrases and Safety Phrases is they have based on well founded science, testing and best practice medical knowledge and have important information about impacts on your and other's health and should be taken seriously - the quality of your health and environment depend on it.

References:

  1. AUSTRALIA: Safe Work Australia HSIS System, United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS)and Regulation (EC) 1272/2008 - EU Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures
  2. GLOBAL: United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS)and Regulation (EC) 1272/2008 - EU Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures