UCLAx Cradle to Cradle: class 10

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This is one in a series of documents that follow my UCLA winter 2010 course titled Cradle to Cradle: Closed Loop Systems. This interdisciplinary course contributes to the school's Certificate of Global Sustainability.

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UCLAx Cradle to Cradle: class 10

  1. 1. UCLAx class 10 1 UCLAx Cradle to Cradle: class 10 For our tenth class, we continued a discussion begun the week prior during our field trip to Steelcase regarding toxic substances. Prior to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 knowing what was in our food or what nutritional its ingredients contained was anyone’s guess. Even though many people today, after twenty years, still don’t know how to read or understand the ingredients list or nutritional facts label. Even though that information does not currently include notification of genetically modified content, can be confusing, and some ingredients difficult to pronounce, at least it offers consumers help in making purchasing decisions based on dietary of health needs. The same is not true of other products that have equally important impact on our health. The EPA estimates that we spend more than 90% of our time indoors in buildings with no direct access to outside air. And unless you’ve done significant research ahead of time, few of us know what ingredients those indoor environments are composed of. The same is true for the vast majority of the consumer products we purchase and use in those buildings. In 1976 the US Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act which also created the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time, it was decided that too many existing chemicals and compounds were already on the market to test for long term human or environmental exposure. Therefore, 62,000 substances were grandfathered in and added to their database. Since then, another 35,000 substances have been added, yet few have ever undergone extensive testing for safety. The EPA itself estimates that 95% of all chemicals and compounds on the market today have never undergone rigorous testing for potential human health risks or environmental impacts. In the thirty-four years of its existence, the EPA has only banned five substances - lead-based ingredients (such as paints and gasoline), PCBs, Asbestos, DDT, and CFCs. Our class discussion focused on volatile organic compounds (VOCs), added formaldehyde, mercury, vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants, dioxin, bisphenol A, and phthalates. Most of these are substances are regulated by the EPA and found in many common products. Phthalates and bisphenol A are both plasticizers. Phthalates are added to plastics and polymers to make them more pliant and soft. Everyone is familiar with that new car smell - that’s phthalates being released. They off-gas from the dashboard and other interior components for as much as two years. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive damage and can have a dramatic effect on young boys by diminishing their production of testosterone. Bisphenol A is added to clear plastics to harden them. It mimics human hormones and does not follow the normal patterns of toxicity. Generally www.threadcollaborative.com ➜ threadcollaborative 11250 morrison street no. 201, north hollywood ca 91601
  2. 2. UCLAx class 10 2 speaking, for most potentially harmful substances, the greater the exposure the greater the risk of impact, and the smaller the exposure the smaller the risk. But hormones do not follow this same pattern. Small, even trace, amounts can have large and continual impact. The normal toxicity exposure to impact ration is not applicable, which is one reason so many are actively pressing the EPA to ban bisphenol A. The reason to discuss chemicals and compounds and understand potential human and environmental exposure concerns is that the issue relates to life cycle assessment, or LCA. No material or resource can be harvested, mined, or extracted, then manufactured, manipulated, or used without impact. Making informed material decisions requires some knowledge about potential impacts so that they can be evaluated as part of an overall assessment. The EPA identifies five phases of production to consider in an LCA - raw materials, manufacturing, packaging and transport, use and maintenance, and recycling or waste. With each of these phases, there are inputs and outputs. For example, during the packaging and transport phase there is fuel consumed as input, and potential solid wastes generated as output. Both input and output can be weighted and prioritized to determine whether there significant value gained or probable impact experienced. These can be interpreted and analyzed by each individual to direct selection decisions. It’s also important to understand the potential harm substances pose to people or the environment as part of a cradle to cradle system. If a chemical is a known carcinogen or ecosystem contaminant, then keeping them within a closed loop system potentially perpetuates their impact. For some substances, continued exposure mean accumulation of damage. Nature cannot process some chemicals and compounds. They are persistently bio-accumulative. From the list discussed in class, formaldehyde, mercury, and dioxin fall into this category. Although it was a tough subject to cover, I feel we all have a better understanding of why we all need to be vigilant in pressing manufacturers to be transparent about ingredients were possible so we can make informed decisions. Designers and consumers alike have to know what’s in the materials we specify and consume in our move toward healthier sustainable processes. www.threadcollaborative.com ➜ threadcollaborative 11250 morrison street no. 201, north hollywood ca 91601

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