A 1985 study published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development identified a serious air quality problem. Counter to what the general wisdom was at the time, the study revealed that it was indoor air quality, not outdoor, that was declining at a rapid rate.
The study found “levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas.” Most alarmingly, it was noted that “while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.”
In the 25 intervening years, the sustainable building movement has grown from a mere trend to a recognized market segment of the building industry. While that might sound like a boon for indoor air quality, it is more of a mixed blessing, says Dr. Marilyn Black, Ph.D., LEED AP, founder of the industry-independent, third-party GREENGUARD Environmental Institute.
“The problem of IAQ has become even more pronounced with the green building community’s focus on energy use reduction: we’re tightening up our homes, or ‘weatherizing’ them, to save energy, but we’re inadvertently allowing high levels of indoor pollutants to accumulate inside,” says Dr. Black. “Key sources of VOCs are cleaners, built-in cabinetry, foam insulations, furniture, and remodeling materials like paints, adhesives, coatings, and other treatments.”
GREENGUARD Environmental Institute was founded by Dr. Black in 2001. GEI is an ANSI Accredited Standards Developer, which means that it establishes acceptable product standards for building materials, interior furnishings, cleaners and products in other categories. The Institute establishes building standards with the aim of protecting the health of occupants through the control of mold, moisture and indoor pollutants.
Black’s advice for kitchen and bath designers who wish to be mindful of indoor air quality is one of content control, rather than mitigation: “Source control is the most effective way to control indoor air pollution. As a practitioner, you should always select and use third-party certified, low-emitting and nontoxic products; as a manufacturer, you should make sure that you are supplying toxin-free products to the marketplace.”
Volatile Organic Compounds are the root of the air quality issue. Think “new car smell” – the cocktail of aromas that are the result of the manufacturing process. Every product has them, whether or not our noses (and allergies) can detect them. Some companies are actively responding to the call for cleaner indoor air by doing away with materials that cause the “new house smells” associated with kitchen and bath products.
“It’s an important topic. That ‘new house’ smell is actually quite bad for you,” says designer Brandy LeMae, CKD, LEED AP of Boulder, CO-based VaST Architecture. “You want to avoid harmful chemical outgassing for all clients, but especially developing children.”
Cosentino’s ECO countertop has received GREENGUARD certification, and Lorenzo Marquez, v.p./marketing, Cosentino Group North America, says that is one part of the company’s overall commitment to sustainability.
“Cosentino Group takes the role of environmental responsibility very seriously,” says Marquez. “We recognize the need for a sustainable product both high in design and performance. The company committed itself to a $6 million R&D investment in the development of ECO by Cosentino, the surface composed of 75% post-industrial and post-consumer recycled raw material. This innovative product caters to the environmentally conscious and design-oriented architect, designer and consumer.”