GreenGuard was launched in 2000 by Atlanta-based for-profit Air Quality Sciences (AQS), which is now a separate not-for-profit organization. Although GreenGuard was not designed specifically for fabrics, it is often advertised that a fabric is GreenGuard certified, because GreenGuard certified products can automatically meet the requirements of LEED 2009 CI Credit 4.5 and BIFMA X7.1.
GreenGuard has developed proprietary indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines based on standards developed by the government and by industrial bodies. Maximum allowable emission levels in air concentrations, according to their website, are based on those required by the state of Washington‘s indoor air quality program for new construction, the U. S. EPA’s procurements specifications, the recommendations from the World Health Organization, Germany’s Blue Angel Program, LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) and LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI).
GreenGuard has introduced a special certification, called GreenGuard Children and Schools, which is intended to be applied to products which are used in schools, daycares, healthcare facilities, and places where sensitive adults may reside or work. This certification is necessary because, as they say on their website, “children are more sensitive to environmental exposures than adults. Their bodies are still developing including their brains. They breathe faster than adults and in return receive a higher dose of indoor pollution per body weight. To account for inhalation exposure to young children, a body burden correction factor has been applied to the current GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified® allowable levels.”
Those products that pay the testing fee and pass muster earn the right to call themselves GreenGuard certified. The GreenGuard Product Guide has become a purchasing tool for thousands of specifiers as they depend on it to preselect environmentally preferable products.
In order to become certified, all products are tested in dynamic environmental chambers following test methods as posted on the GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI) web site. The tests are designed to measure emitting chemicals coming from a product; that means it tests only for evaporating chemicals – chemicals which are a gas at room temperature. Specifically, for the GreenGuard certification, emission criteria are established for total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC), formaldehyde, total aldehydes, all individual chemicals with currently published Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), respirable particles and certain odorants and irritants. The requirements for Children and Schools is more stringent and includes limits on emissions for total phthalates, consisting of dibutyl (DBP), diethylhexyl (DEHP), diethyl (DEP), dimethyl (DMP), butylbenzyl (BBP) and dioctyl (DOP) phthalates, because, again according to the GreenGuard website, “Results from recent research indicate that inhalation is an important route of exposure to phthalates and that these chemicals have been associated with endocrine disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders, asthma and allergies.”
GreenGuard, by measuring only emitting chemicals, is significant for what it does not measure:
- It does not measure any of the heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, etc.), such as those used in fabric dyestuffs, because they are not emitted at standard indoor air conditions;
- It does not measure PVC, which is a polymer and therefore not volatile (however, some PVC based product types have a special formulation which enables them to meet GreenGuard standards);
- It does not measure phthalates except in the Children and Schools certification; phthalates are semi volatile, and don’t begin to evaporate until approximately 7 days after exposure to the air.
- It does not evaluate the manufacture of a product, nor any byproducts created during production or disposal
- It does not evaluate any social justice issues
- It does not evaluate carbon footprint issues
Nobody can debate that we need to rid the indoor environment from irritating contaminants that can have serious effects on people’s health, productivity and quality of life. Since
Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air can be as much as 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, this issue must be taken seriously by designers. It is incumbent on them to specify products (including fabrics) that are low-emitters of formaldehyde and all the other volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor indoor air. But it is also true that air quality is not the only contributor to poor health, productivity and quality of life of the occupants of indoor spaces – after all, our skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it’s quite permeable. So designers should not take this certification as assurance that a product is the best environmental choice – not only does it bypass those chemicals that do not evaporate, it does not look at the production of the fabric, any social justice issues, nor does it look at carbon footprint. Indeed, a product containing PVC, one of the most toxic substances known – highly toxic in all its phases: manufacture, use, and disposal – can be GreenGuard certified.
According to GreenGuard itself, as is published on their web site: GreenGuard is a product emissions performance-based standard, and as such, the complete toxicity effects of the chemical emissions from the products tested are beyond its scope.
So what are the take aways? Remember that GreenGuard tests for emitting chemicals only, and they do that very well. But it should not be used as a tool to evaluate a product’s environmental impact and safety.