Searching for Alternatives

Manufacturers and designers know what chemicals they don't want used in a product, but it can be difficult to find eco-friendly alternatives. A new program from NSF International can help.

Your designs can only be as green as the products and materials used in them; likewise, the products and materials that you specify for a project are only as green as the chemicals and compounds that are used to create them. And so while we can work hard to make smart choices in the design of healthy spaces, the choices made by manufacturers ultimately impact the sustainability of your final product to a larger degree.

In order to green the manufacturing process—and by extension, the resulting materials and furnishings—companies must first find more eco-friendly yet effective alternatives to the most hazardous ingredients commonly found in building products. And while that may sound like a tall order, a new program promises to help manufacturers substitute out troublesome chemicals and compounds, and ensure a healthy environment for the rest of us. The Clean Production Action (CPA) GreenScreen™ for Safer Chemicals is a comparative chemical screening method focused on hazard reduction and informed substitution; it also encourages the design, manufacture and use of safer chemicals.

The GreenScreen Process
GreenScreen reviews are offered through NSF International’s Sustainability division. NSF International is an independent organization that writes standards and certifies products to minimize adverse health effects and protect the environment.

“NSF Sustainability draws upon this expertise in standards development, product assurance and certification, advisory services and quality systems management to help companies green their products, operations, systems and supply chain,” says Teresa McGrath, supervising toxicologist of NSF International’s Green Chemistry Program. “Through its National Center for Sustainability standards, NSF has developed sustainability standards for chemicals, building products and materials, and water quality. NSF works with leading regulators, scientists, engineers, public health and environmental health professionals, and industry representatives to develop these transparent, consensus-based standards.”

When performing a GreenScreen review, a team of toxicologists, chemists and biologists perform comparative chemical hazard assessments. These are done by examining product ingredients and formulations in accordance with the GreenScreen protocol, which includes determining viable transformation products, checking authoritative and screening level lists, running a literature search that evaluates relevant articles, and summarizing the results in a report.

“Based on this analysis, chemicals earn one of four benchmark scores, each defining progressively safer chemicals,” McGrath explains. “For example, benchmark one indicates a chemical of high concern, while benchmark four indicates a chemical with low hazard levels. Benchmark U is reserved for chemicals with insufficient data.”

This tiered structure categorizes the chemicals, showing manufacturers the hazardous materials that should be avoided, along with safer alternatives. This allows manufacturers to make an informed decision when it comes to what chemicals they choose to use. In addition, GreenScreen helps to prevent companies from choosing an alternative chemical that is later found to be hazardous—a costly mistake.

Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network, gives an example of how the GreenScreen process can prevent the use of adverse alternatives.

“You’re getting signals from your customers that they don’t want to see formaldehyde in their product—the customer wants a formaldehyde-free product. But as a manufacturer, you don’t want to replace the formaldehyde with a chemical that is equally toxic or that shifts the toxic risk from emissions to the occupant, creating a much more hazardous workplace environment.”

“You want to look at the types of chemicals that have the same qualities of formaldehyde but have fewer hazards associated with them,” he adds. “That’s what GreenScreen helps manufacturers to do. In terms of long-term research, it really points them in the direction of long-term investment in what types of chemical classes they should move away from, and what types of chemical classes look like they might prove to be less hazardous to both the workers and the building occupants.”

But the GreenScreen program isn’t limited to just manufacturers—any company that makes use of chemicals, special formulations or materials can use it to evaluate its product.

“Proactive companies who want to substitute hazardous chemicals use GreenScreen to identify safer alternatives,” McGrath says. “Other companies use the GreenScreen as a systematic method for evaluating and improving the hazard profile for their chemical profile. The benchmarks provide an easy way to communicate and provide incentives to non-technical buyers to select safer alternatives. Still others use the GreenScreen to comply with state regulatory programs.”

GreenScreen in Action
One adopter of the GreenScreen program is the Pharos Project, an initiative of the Healthy Building Network.

“The Pharos Project is an online system that looks at the ingredients of building products and screens those ingredients against 26 authoritative chemical hazard lists—lists that might come from the U.S. EPA or the State of California—and it gives the user a system indicator of what kinds of chemical hazards have been shown to be associated with a chemical ingredient that is in a building product,” says Walsh. “Also using an algorithm, it calculates relative scores of building products. You can see if a building product ranks higher or lower in terms of its environmental and health impact. GreenScreen is used as a benchmark in the system that helps calculate the scores.”

Advantages of a GreenScreen Evaluation

According to Teresa McGrath, supervising toxicologist of NSF International’s Green Chemistry Program, the benefits of conducting a GreenScreen assessment include:

  • Providing a better understanding of a product’s potential risk profile.

  • Supporting business value when comparative hazard assessments lead to educated substitutions and continual improvements.

  • Preventing regrettable situations, in which a substitution for a hazardous chemical is later found also to be hazardous, and avoiding the costs associated with chemical replacements.

  • Providing an easy way to communicate the hazard level to a non-technical audience. This allows companies to provide incentives to buyers to preferentially select safer alternatives.
The goal of Pharos is to make chemical information available so that manufacturers and designers can make informed decisions about what they put into their products and projects. But this new plethora of information can be overwhelming and tricky to navigate, especially because this information is only recently becoming available.

“We’re on the verge of seeing a lot more disclosure about the ingredients in building materials being made available to designers, and that’s going to produce a lot of information that previously had not been available to designers,” Walsh says. “It’s going to be challenging for designers to analyze all of that information. The Pharos Project is a tool that designers can use both to evaluate products that are in the building product library of the system, and to get more information about chemicals that they find listed as an ingredient in a product in order to compare the toxicity of those ingredients product-by-product.”

And even though they’ll enjoy products with fewer dangerous chemicals and potential environmental and health hazards, designers and consumers likely won’t deal directly with a GreenScreen.

“Consumers and other end-users of products will likely not see the Clean Production Action GreenScreen logo on finished formulations or fabrications because the GreenScreen is geared towards the evaluation of chemicals and materials,” McGrath explains. “However, companies who use the GreenScreen to understand the hazards associated with the materials in their products and choose safer alternatives may be eligible for recognition under programs like the EPA’s Design for the Environment program, LEED or NSF’s Sustainable Products standards. Consumers can look for these marks and understand that they are choosing a product that has met rigorous criteria.”

Learn more about the GreenScreen program at Find the Pharos Project online at


Kylie Wroblaski is a former editor for BUILDINGS magazine, and has written previously about architecture and facilities management.