What do you get when you hire an interior designer?

3 11 2010

I just came from showing our fabrics to a well-known interior design firm here in Seattle.   We were told that the only criteria they use to pick fabrics is that it must be beautiful – and of the right color.    Environmental and safety issues are just NOT part of the equation.

The visit was not completely a disaster because they did show interest in some of our fabrics – based solely on the beauty and coloration.  But I’ve been thinking since then about the responsibility  designers have to provide interiors for their clients which are not only beautiful, but which will not cause harm.  I know people don’t really want to think that the cute baby blanket they’re eyeing will cause a genetic malformation in their little one – or that a chemical in that blanket  will spark a cancer that only shows up 20 years from now.  So it’s easy to ignore the problem.

On top of the goal of making their client’s interior spaces safe, there is the additional problem of what THEIR choices do me and MY family – because by choosing certain fabrics they’re  ensuring that those fabrics will continue to be produced:  those choices ensure that the textile effluent is still being poured into my groundwater, and the sludge is still sent to the landfill, where it leaches the chemicals into the soils and groundwater.

Designers can continue to ignore the misery their choices may cause – at least for now.  But I think we should know what they’re doing, so I did a quick study to see what kind of effect fabric may have on us and the planet.

Let’s assume a designer orders fabric to cover one sofa, two chairs and enough fabric for drapery in a living room.  We’ll assume the amount of fabric needed would be:

  • 20 yards of upholstery fabric for the sofa, and 7 yards for each of the chairs:  34 yards of  fabric which weighs18 oz per square yard and is 54” wide (total weight: 57.4 lbs);
  • 40 yards of drapery weight fabric at 10 oz per square yard, 54” wide (total weight: 37.5 lbs).

It takes between 13 – 14 gallons of water to produce one pound of natural fiber fabric, and it takes between 6 – 8 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of polyester fabric.

If we use the 8 gallon figure which is at the top of the polyester range but low for natural fibers, the total amount of water used to produce this fabric would have been at least 759 gallons.  To put that in perspective, there are about 300 gallons in a large hot tub.

Consider that it takes between 10% and 100% of the weight of the fabric  IN CHEMICALS to produce that fabric – for detergents, bleaches, dyes, finishes, scours, optical brighteners, wetting agents, biocides – the list is at least 2,000 chemicals long.   But to be a tad conservative,  let’s say it takes just 50% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce the fabrics for our room.   If the process water (from sizing, desizing, scouring, dyeing, printing and finishing)  was returned to our ecosystem without treatment – that means that 47 pounds of chemicals will have been introduced into our ecosystem.  Most of the process chemicals are not toxic to us, but remember the concept of reactive chemistry:  many of the chemicals used, though benign themselves, will react with other chemicals to create a third substance which is toxic.  This reaction can occur during the production of the fibers (in the case of synthetics), during the manufacturing process, or at end of life (i.e., burning at the landfill, decomposing or biodegrading).

But there are chemicals used in processing which are toxic – just as they are.  Some of the chemicals expelled in the wastewater DO pose a threat to my health – and that list includes (but is not limited to):

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) , known to cause damage to the brains of newborns (among many other things); they’re persistent and bioaccumulative;
  • Benzenes and benzidines:  highly carcinogenic
  • Phthalates:          known to cause breast  cancer and asthma
  • Arsenic:                carcinogen
  • Lead:                     attacks the nervous system
  • Mercury:             attacks the immune system, alters genetic data and damages nervous system
  • Chlorine (sodium hypochlorite):                  hormonal disruption, infertility and immune system suppression.

These chemicals are all dumped into our environment every day.   Remember, as David Suzuki reminds us, we ARE the environment.  What is “out there” inevitably is found inside us.  That’s why PBDE’s (which are persistent in the environment – meaning they don’t break down into benign, less toxic components)  are found in animals worldwide, from penguins in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the tropics – and levels have been doubling every 3 to 5 years for the past three decades.   (you can read more about PBDE’s and the furniture in your homes here ).  We are silently and progressively changing the chemistry of our bodies.

And lest you think you can ignore what unscrupulous mill practices are doing to our environment by discharging untreated effluent – remember that the fabric you bring into your home and live with intimately  is also suffused with these chemicals.  Everybody is concerned about “outgassing” – the media is full of information about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).  But air quality is just one component of a healthy environment.  Not all chemicals volatilize, so they do not “outgass” – but are certainly toxic nevertheless.  Take lead, for example – a component of many dyestuffs, lead is not a gas at room temperature so it does not “outgass”.  But microscopic particles of your fabric do abrade when you rub against them, and these particles settle into the dust in our homes, to be breathed in by crawling kids and pets.

And designers are hired, presumably, for their expertise.   The designer should not be a mindless  agent following a vision without regard to function or use.  Theoretically, the designer has a body of knowledge that is deeper than the client’s, so an ethical burden is placed on the designer.  The client can plead ignorance of the issues but the designer cannot.  According to Daniel Yang,  good design seeks to foster the client’s trust, then fulfills or exceeds her expectations.  Designers should advocate for a better design while striving to make the best product they can for their clients.  But how can a product be considered “good” if it compromises that clients health and well being?  Daniel Yang points out that it’s hard to advocate for a product when the people that end up consuming the product will probably never come back to complain – as is the case with fabrics.

So I wish I could go back to those designers who look only at color and aesthetics and point out that their thoughtless choice are harming not only their clients, but me and my family – all of us.  And that they should consider these questions if they want to save their professional souls –  or to save their professional license,  as many are suggesting that the law might  soon mandate that designers consider the public welfare when specifying products.


Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

17 03 2010

What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) that we hear so much about?

Simply, they are chemicals which are carbon-based (hence the “organic” in the name, as organic chemistry is the study of carbon containing compounds) and which volatilize – or rather, evaporate or vaporize – at ordinary (atmospheric) temperatures.  This is a very broad set of chemicals!

These volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are ubiquitous in the environment.  You can’t see them, but they’re all around us.  They’re not  listed as ingredients on the products you bring home, but they’re often there.   The most common VOC is methane, which comes from wetlands and rice agriculture to …well, “ruminant gases” (or cow farts – which are actually not a trivial consideration:  cows are responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gasses – read more here).  We ourselves contribute to CO2 emissions each time we breathe out.  They’re also in paint, carpets, furnishings, fabrics and cleaning agents.

The evaporating chemicals from many products contribute to poor indoor air quality, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates is two to five times worse than air outside – but concentrations of VOC’s can be as much as 1,000 times greater indoors than out.  These chemicals can cause chronic and acute health effects, while others are known carcinogens.   Hurricane Katrina proved a lesson in what happens when we don’t pay attention to indoor air quality:  The trailers which were provided to refugees of Katrina proved, in a test done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to have formaldehyde levels that were 5 times higher than normal; with some levels as high as 40 times higher.  Other airborne contaminants were found to be present.  The result? This is from Newsweek, November 22, 2008:

”  …the children of Katrina who stayed longest in ramshackle government trailer parks in Baton Rouge are “the sickest I have ever seen in the U.S.,” says Irwin Redlener, president of the Children’s Health Fund and a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. According to a new report by CHF and Mailman focusing on 261 displaced children, the well-being of the poorest Katrina kids has “declined to an alarming level” since the hurricane. Forty-one percent are anemic—twice the rate found in children in New York City homeless shelters, and more than twice the CDC’s record rate for high-risk minorities. More than half the kids have mental-health problems. And 42 percent have respiratory infections and disorders that may be linked to formaldehyde…”

There is no clear and widely supported definition of a VOC.   Definitions vary depending on the particular context and the locale.  In the U.S., the EPA defines a VOC as any compound of carbon (excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates  and ammonium carbonate)  which reacts with sunlight to create smog  –   but also includes a list of dozens of exceptions for compounds “determined to have negligible photochemical reactivity.” 

Under European law, the definition of a VOC is based on evaporation into the atmosphere, rather than reactivity, and the British coatings industry has adopted a labeling scheme for all decorative coatings to inform customers about the levels of organic solvents and other volatile materials present. Split into five levels, or “bands”, these span minimal, low, medium, high, and very high.

These differences in definition have led to a lot of confusion.  Especially in the green building community, we think of VOCs as contributors to indoor air quality (IAQ) problems—and the amount of VOCs is often our only IAQ metric for a product. But there are lots of compounds that meet a chemist’s definition of VOC   but are not photoreactive (as in the EPA definition)  so are not defined as VOCs by regulators. Some of these chemicals—including formaldehyde, methyl chloride, and many other chlorinated organic compounds—have serious health and ecological impacts.  Manufacturers can advertise their products as being “low-VOC” – while containing extremely toxic  volatilizing chemicals, such as perchloroethane in paint, which is not listed as a VOC by the EPA and therefore not required to be listed!

The Canadian government  (bless em) has an extensive list of which chemicals are considered VOC’s and you can access it here.  When products are identified as to which might contain VOC’s, furnishings are often cited and formaldehyde is the chemical highlighted, because it’s the chemical used most widely in fabric finishes.  However, there are many other chemicals on the list which are used in textile production, such as benzenes and benzidines;  methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene and pentachlorophenol.

Some manufacturers advertise the amount or type of VOC in their products – and that may or may not be a good indication of what is actually released into the air, because sometimes these chemicals morph into something new as they volatilize.  The key word to remember is: reactive chemistry.  The chemicals don’t exist in a vacuum – heat, light, oxygen and other chemicals all have an effect on the chemical.

VOC’s are also found in our drinking water – the EPA estimates that VOC’s are present in 1/5 of the nation’s water supplies.  They enter the ground water from a variety of sources  – from textile effluents to oil spills.  The EPA lists VOC’s currently regulated in public water supplies (see that list here); they have established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for each chemical listed.  But little is known about the additive effects of these chemicals.

Another point to remember is that the evaporation doesn’t happen in a pouf!  Chemicals evaporate over time – sometimes over quite long periods of time.  The graph below is of various evaporating chemicals at ground zero (GZ)  of the World Trade Center after the September 11 attacks:

For indoor air quality purposes we should look to results from chamber testing protocols that analyze key VOC’s individually.  Most of these protocols – such as California’s Section 01350, GreenGuard for Children and Schools, Indoor Advantage Gold and Green Label Plus – reference California’s list of chemicals for which acceptable exposure limits have been established.  But even this is not a comprehensive list.

Indoor air quality is certainly important, but in the case of fabrics there are many chemicals used in production which do not volatilize and which are certainly not beneficial to human health!  These include the heavy metals used in dyestuffs and many of the polymers (such as PVC).  So VOC considerations are just one part of the puzzle in evaluating a safe fabric.