Return to site home page


Google’s Green Frontier

How the world’s largest search engine gets results for its healthy materials program

By Janelle Penny

How the world’s largest search engine gets results for its healthy materials program.

Your building may not be as green as you think, no matter how good your intentions. Existing buildings in particular may harbor chemicals and byproducts that can pose real harm to your FM team and the people who live or work in your facility.  Google is at the forefront of the shift to the green frontier and healthy materials programs.

How can you get these potential dangers out of your building and keep them out? Read on to identify and remove existing toxins and prevent future ones.

How Harmful Are These Substances?
Guides to potentially harmful additives and products, such as the one issued by Living Building Challenge (see page 38), typically target the “worst in class” offenders, explains Amanda Sturgeon, vice president of the International Living Future Institute and director of the Living Building Challenge certification program.

Others, like the EPA’s Chemicals of Concern, are flexible and change as more information emerges about the effects of such chemicals. The agency has issued action plans for a handful of the worst offenders and plans to continue adding to the list as ongoing research clarifies the type and severity of reactions caused by each substance.

Google, which opens roughly 40,000 square feet of office space per week, decided in late 2010 to launch its Healthy Materials Program in North America following the success of two pilot projects that summer. This initiative incorporates the Living Building Challenge’s Materials Red List, EPA-issued action plans for its Chemicals of Concern, and two substances now raising concern (nanomaterials and fly ash), says Anthony Ravitz, green team lead in Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services department.

The company requires all vendors to provide comprehensive information on each product ingredient from every point in the supply chain. They must also share these ingredients not only with Google, but also with the Pharos Project, an online evaluation system that helps registered members make more informed product choices.

Google began conducting international pilot projects this year as part of its plans to expand the requirement to its global facilities.

“What we want are materials that help us build better, healthier places that support people,” Ravitz explains. “Our goal isn’t to do things that are less bad – that’s not the end game here. But we have to start somewhere because we build a lot of buildings. We make decisions every day about what chair to sit people in and what paint to put on their walls if they’re going to spend long hours in our facilities.”

In addition to protecting your own building occupants, avoiding questionable substances also protects you, your team, and ultimately everyone involved in the production of the finished product, Sturgeon notes.

“Commercial buildings have a huge impact. They use a lot of materials and are often doing retrofits, which can disturb the materials and send them to the atmosphere,” Sturgeon says.

How Chemicals of Concern Affect Your Facility
The dangers of VOCs like formaldehyde are well-known and include neurological and respiratory symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and potential asthma aggravation. These effects, while generally not deadly, certainly make it hard for affected occupants to function well at work.

Luckily, prevention is fairly straightforward – it’s not hard to find low-VOC paints and coatings for many applications.

Lesser known and more dangerous are semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), such as bisphenol A (BPA) and wood treatments that contain pentachlorophenol. This class of toxins tends to cause chronic problems like cancer or reproductive toxicity rather than the annoying acute effects imposed by VOCs, Lent says. You can find them in products like caulk and epoxy-based floor coatings for concrete.

“They’re semi-volatile because they don’t off-gas rapidly and they have a very high boiling point, but they’re still getting into people,” explains Tom Lent, research director of the Healthy Building Network, which advocates for safer building materials and created the Pharos Project.

“There are ways other than volatility and off-gassing that ingredients in a building material can end up in the air – it may be from abrasion as you walk across the floor or just general degradation,” Lent adds. “Over time, little bits of dust will flake out and end up wafting in the air or picked up on your fingertips. We end up eating and breathing more of what’s around us than we imagine.”

SVOCs may also endanger your staff, Lent notes, so take the appropriate precautions. FMs are exposed to considerable fumes when applying substances like wet-applied epoxy-based floor coatings.

“I’m most concerned about the big surface areas like floors and walls where you’re spreading out a lot of an epoxy-based material,” Lent says. “With a two-part product, you’re doing a chemical reaction in the building in an uncontrolled way. A lot of our knowledge about BPA comes from studies in the automotive industry on spray-on epoxies, but in a factory, that stuff tends to be more controlled than it is on a jobsite. Think very carefully about worker safety, protective gear, and good ventilation during and after any large application of epoxy-based materials.”

Minimize the Effects of Existing Toxins
Unfortunately, after volatile and semi-volatile compounds are deployed in your facility, there’s not much you can do about it, Lent explains. For example, heating the building to accelerate off-gassing is controversial.

Not only does it speed up off-gassing from the item you wanted to release VOC fumes from, but it can also trigger off-gassing in other products where VOCs would have been safely trapped otherwise.

“There’s definitely value to using high ventilation rates in the days immediately following installation of VOC-laden products, particularly wet-applied VOCs,” Lent explains. “The rate of VOC emissions tends to start high and taper off for all products with emissions, especially paint and other coatings. Most of the green building rating systems now have protocols for ventilation that help speed up that initial burst of off-gassing.

“With solid products like particle board, you’ll get a high initial level of emissions that tapers after a couple weeks but has a very long tail, so you’ve got a problem with long-term emissions,” Lent continues. “There are some coatings for things like particle board, however. It’s tough to get that right.”

It’s exceedingly hard to pinpoint which chemical from which source is causing an occupant’s health complaint, Sturgeon adds. Once a negative reaction is identified, flush the building as best you can to air out the area.

“What tends to happen with VOCs is that they can be released by furniture and then absorbed by carpets. They’re moving around in a space and can be very challenging to remove,” Sturgeon explains. “If the building is naturally ventilated, open all of the windows and don’t run the HVAC system so you get a certain number of air flushes per hour to clear out the space.”


Create Your Own Red List to Avoid Future Issues
Despite your best intentions, it may not be possible to eliminate every identifiable building-related toxin from your facility, especially for an existing building that may already incorporate particle board or furnishings with VOC-based coatings. Instead, start phasing out toxins of high concern by creating your own red list of substances to gradually eliminate from your facility – and ban them from future projects.

5 Places to Boost Your Material Know-How

Got a question about the ingredients in a building product? Take a look inside your building materials with these resources.

  1. EPA Chemicals of Concern: The agency issues action plans for the worst-in-class chemicals as more evidence to support their harmful effects emerges. also offers a list of 18 additional chemicals it’s currently assessing for negative health effects.

  2. Declare: The International Living Future Institute, which offers the Living Building Challenge certification program, recently released the materials database Declare. In addition to being listed in the database, Declare-listed products carry a brief statement of product ingredients and sustainable qualities made to look like a nutrition label. Any material can be listed in the Declare database, and products that also qualify for the Living Building Challenge will say so on the label.

  3. Pharos Project: A searchable library of the ingredients of building materials. It assigns scores to manufacturers, brands, and products based on the end user’s likely experiences with it, potential hazards, and what chemicals are used in manufacturing.

  4. Living Building Challenge: Certifying a building to the Challenge’s strict standard expressly forbids the use of any of the materials or chemicals listed here.

  5. Health Product Declarations: Similar to an EPD, this document lists a product’s potential toll on human, animal, and environmental health.

Found another great resource to track what’s in your building? Email it to or post about it on our blog, Buildings Buzz, at!

Target the worst items first, Sturgeon recommends. Not only do they pose the most danger, but you’re also more likely to have a successful conversation with a vendor about substitutions.

“We tend to think that lead, mercury, or asbestos aren’t present anymore. We just assume that,” Sturgeon explains. “It’s actually very common for some of these to be present in small amounts – for example, lead in door hardware and plumbing fixtures. Those are the ones everybody has familiarity with, so the first step should be to tackle those and start asking questions.”

After you’ve figured out how to target the worst of the worst, examine existing resources to determine your next move (see sidebar on page 40). Assess the feasibility of addressing each concern and determine when and how you can make greener substitutions with minimal or no extra cost.

Many replacements are cost-neutral, Ravitz notes, and in other cases you may be able to get by with a smaller amount of material.

“A lot of times the strategy we use is ‘Do we need this material? Can we buy a lower quantity?’” Ravitz explains. “In some cases, we found that there are certain types of materials that really do cost more and we end up with a more premium product than we’d normally buy.”

Weigh material attributes from all points in its predicted lifecycle, from manufacturing to disposal, to answer the hard questions about which compounds to move away from and why. Repeat the process for products you’re considering as replacements for red list substances.

For example, PVC is on the Living Building Challenge’s red list, but it poses few (if any) risks to FMs or building occupants. So when it’s time to replace a roof with a PVC membrane, do you stay with PVC because it’s durable, recyclable, and energy efficient? Or do you switch to another type of roofing because PVC is made with chlorine and the phthalates added to some products can leach into the environment as the roof ages? Read up on the pros and cons of each chemical and weigh them with your own priorities.

“Take what’s out there rather than reinventing the wheel each time,” Ravitz advises. “For some materials you can go out and do some simple reading online. Ask manufacturers too, because they know. It’s about getting past the greenwashing and marketing to have real conversations.”

Google did exactly that, and its list of banned materials continues to grow as new concerns emerge. In addition to the products and substances flagged by the EPA and the Living Building Challenge, Google also raised concerns about fly ash and nanomaterials – two products that were previously marketed as more sustainable choices. By examining the available literature, Google decided it could do without both, Ravitz says.

Why add those two to the no-go list?

Fly ash, a byproduct of pollution control equipment in coal-fired power plants, is often recycled into a concrete additive to help reduce the energy intensity of the concrete mixing process, Lent notes. However, the ash may contain harmful substances that could violate your green goals or even create a future problem if the concrete is disturbed.

“The pollution control equipment isn’t just pulling out basic particulates. It’s also loaded with some of the nasty things in coal that we’re trying to get out of the air, like mercury,” Lent explains. “Is concrete bundling up these substances or is it just moving a problem to another spot so it becomes a long-term hazard that emerges when the building is demolished and the concrete gets turned into dust again? If you’re drilling into the wall to install stuff, will you disturb the fly ash and generate toxins?”

Nanomaterials, Lent continues, are in such an early stage of development that building science doesn’t fully understand how they can affect people. These products are created from the same components as normal materials but on an infinitesimally smaller scale. Nanomaterials have different performance attributes solely due to their size – for example, they could discourage dirt from sticking to a coating. However, they can carry a downside.

“Not only do they perform differently, but they have some potentially very different side effects on human health,” Lent explains. “Because they’re so small, they’re able to pass through human cellular barriers the way that traditional materials are not able to. That means that something that might normally have very low toxicity could become much more toxic if it can get past the cells’ defenses. It’s one of a number of new technologies that have both great promise and great threat, neither of which we adequately understand right now.”


Make the Switch to Healthy Materials
If you can’t implement substitutions for every substance right away, start with the low-hanging fruit. For example, switch to greener furnishings gradually when it’s time to replace older items with coatings that contain VOCs.

From there, the cooperation of your vendors will be absolutely vital. Not every company has the market leverage Google does, but its strategies can certainly help you make headway. Try these four steps to gradually green your building materials:

  1. “The first question is to ask what ingredients are in their products,” Sturgeon advises. “Asking is often as easy as taking the red list and saying ‘Do you have any of these in your products?’ It’s an important first step.”

  2. Emphasize transparency for all products, regardless of where they fall on the green spectrum, Ravitz adds. Make it clear to your vendors that you need detailed information on what’s in each product and its possible health and environmental impacts. Initially, some of Google’s vendors and manufacturers hesitated to supply that much information, but simply asking the right questions sends a signal to the manufacturer that customers want greener products.

  3. “What do you buy a lot of? What are the materials in your facility that people often come in contact with? Where do you have leverage points and relationships?” Ravitz explains. “You might buy a lot of carpet and furniture, for example, but maybe you know your furniture vendor better than your carpet vendor. Find the practical issues where you have leverage points.”

  4. Strive to maintain and constantly improve this relationship into the future, Lent says. There may not be good substitutes available for some products right now, but consistently driving home the message that the marketplace needs sustainable alternatives will help push manufacturers of building materials and supplies toward better, healthier products.

Urge manufacturers to take advantage of the same resources you use, whether that involves applying for a green product certification or simply sharing product ingredients with Pharos.

“It’s time to start raising the flags – for example, telling manufacturers to put resources into getting away from bisphenol A chemistry,” Lent says. “We know we don’t have a lot of options right now, but we’re going to be watching for them.”

LEED v4: Timeline of a Chemical Controversy

The upcoming LEED upgrade was criticized by some this summer for discouraging the use of certain materials - but why? Here’s how it happened.

Where the Problem Started: USGBC released the first draft of LEED 2012 (now known as LEED v4) for public comment in November 2010. The new LEED offering proposed a voluntary Materials & Resources credit, Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern, which was based on European Commission EC No. 1907/2006 Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), according to the USGBC’s breakdown of LEED v4’s changes over previous versions.

REACH requires safety assessments, labeling, and eventual restriction or phase-out for certain chemicals marketed and distributed in the European Union. The LEED credit based on REACH rewards participants who can show that at least 20% of the materials in their buildings avoid materials with component chemicals and breakdown products that have high levels of persistence (time to break down naturally), bioaccumulation (how a substance builds up in a living organism and becomes concentrated in the food chain), and human and/or ecotoxicity as defined by the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals Benchmarks.

This hazard assessment tool is produced by Clean Production Action, which designs and delivers green chemical compounds, sustainable materials, and environmentally preferable products.

Enforcement is still being implemented, but the current version of REACH calls for the phase-out of “high priority” substances that include PVC, vinyl, and some phthalates used in roofing membranes.

How the Conflict Arose: During the third comment period in summer 2012, the new credit drew fire from the newly formed American High Performance Buildings Coalition (AHPBC), a collective of 27 trade organizations that included the American Chemistry Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The group was formed around the same time that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) reviewed the use of green building standards for federal facilities. The AHPBC urged the government to switch to Green Globes, a green rating system it felt was fairer and more business-friendly, and charged in a public statement that the development process for LEED credits wasn’t transparent or consensus-based.

What Happened Next: USGBC opted to delay the release of LEED v4 until 2013 to help stakeholders more fully understand the changes. The fifth public comment period for LEED v4 will be open until Dec. 10 so that USGBC can spotlight the changes in forums and educational sessions at Greenbuild in November. LEED 2009 will remain available to projects for three years after LEED v4’s release, according to


Janelle Penny is associate editor of BUILDINGS.