The New York Times carried a remarkable, front-page piece this weekend on the severe health risks of a chemical called normal propyl bromide (nPB), a substance known for many years to cause nerve damage, infertility and cancer. Commonly used in aerosol form in furniture adhesives, the focus of the piece is on the mendacious practices of Royale, a foam cushion company with a long history of exposing their employees to the stuff, and the ineffectiveness of OSHA in either limiting the general use of nPB or disciplining Royale for their myriad infractions. The Times also frames the issue in terms of unintended consequences- OSHA banned the use of something called trichloroethane (TCA) because it damages the ozone layer and companies began using nPB instead. Leaving aside the horrifying callousness of certain business managers- one is quoted as saying, “There are people lined up out there for jobs. If they start dropping like flies . . . we can replace them today”- one wonders how we got ourselves into a situation in which the various impacts of every chemical deployed have to be chased down by government agencies and employees. The article reads like a keystone cops version of regulatory malfeasance. Employees tell their bosses that nPB makes them sick. The employees (and their doctors) tell OSHA that nPB makes them sick. OSHA doles out fines that are so small the employers hardly notice so they continue to use nPB unabated, even as multiple employees are left unable to walk, have children, or get another job. For me, the moment of highest tragi-comic value in the story is when Mid South Adhesives, the company that makes the nPB-based adhesive, tells Royale to stop using their product. But they keep selling it to them, and Royale keeps pumping it into their employees lungs because, hey, it’s legal.
All of this has direct bearing on the building industry, where the vast majority of materials include substances with a huge variety of severe health impacts, from cancer to arsenic poisoning to lung diseases. A recent study by Perkins + Will found 374 substances in common building materials that are linked just to asthma. It is just this sort of staggering data that has led to the development of the Perkins + Will Precautionary List, the Living Building Challenge Red List, and for organizations like the Healthy Building Network to focus on eliminating the “worst in class” substances commonly deployed by the three-billion dollar building material industry. To date, the focus has been on simple transparency of what is actually in building materials. Astonishingly, most manufacturers are unable to tell you what’s in their products. No one has ever asked them. So programs like Declare are aiming to rectify this lack of knowledge. Which is all well and good. But maybe we should ask ourselves a different question. Like, why is it the victims’ responsibility, the people getting sick, to PROVE that a specific material has led to their specific illness? Shouldn’t the folks that are pumping the carcinogens and toxins into the system be required to, you know, stop doing that? Why isn’t it the responsibility of manufacturers to prove to us that they’re products won’t make us sick? As Michael Braungart once said to me, “If it causes cancer, and shows up in breast milk, surely we can all agree this is a bad thing?”
We’ve been nibbling away at the periphery of this system for a long time. Decades of banning the very worst substances, limiting the use of a few others, replacing a small percentage of raw materials with salvaged and recycled stuff- all of this has had an impact, in some cases dramatic. But we still are left with a system that enables the use of truly horrible substances, stuff that we’d never be exposed to in a just and equitable world. Helder Camara, the Brazilian Archbishop and champion of social justice for the poor, is famous for saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Perhaps we need to be asking similarly fundamental questions about how we make things, in the building industry and beyond.
Postscript: Ian Urbina’s piece in the New York Times, referenced above, clocks in at more than 5,000 words and clearly involved a huge amount of research and interviews of dozens of people. Although he soft-pedals some of the conclusions that might be drawn from all this work, the piece is a clarion call for the kind of long-form investigative journalism that seems imperiled these days and which our society needs as much as ever. The message I take from this is that paying for online content (as the NYT requires after a few views) is very much worth it and we should all be prepared to do so more often on the internet.