BLOG by EPEA: Off-gassing: a smelly story

By: Lars Luscuere & Hein van Tuijl (EPEA Nederland)

Recently on Dutch news attention was given to factories where workers are negatively affected by the process- and product materials they are dealing with. [1] A measurable increase in cancer among the workers and video images of the working conditions did not need much additional explanation to show that these were not healthy work environments. The material brought to the attention in the news broadcast was benzene, used in electronic devices. Benzene is amongst others a known carcinogen, but also a cause of aplastic anemia, acute leukemia and bone marrow failure. [2] Scandals like these raise awareness to the importance of material health, one of the fundamentals of Cradle to Cradle. Because; `waste = food’ only when `waste’ is defined as healthy and beneficial nutriment in biological or technical cycles.

To measure human health impacts of materials, EPEA frequently performs off-gassing tests on products. This lab testing methodology involves putting materials in a small warm chamber and measuring the level of chemicals in the air as it flows through the chamber over a period of time.
The air becomes contaminated when the products contain so-called VOC’s. (Volatile organic compounds) These compounds have low boiling temperatures and therefore will, at a slow rate, evaporate or sublimate out of the product, also under normal, home, conditions. Not all VOC’s are harmful to our health, but many are. Let`s have a closer look at two examples from a recent off-gassing test; a pillow from a regular home accessories store and a smartphone case from a well-known fashion retailer. [3]

Pillow

Pillows are very critical in terms of human health, simply because we sink our heads (and respiratory organs) in them nearly a third of every day. The pillow that was examined in the off-gassing test does not contain many VOC’s. A chemical that we did find is Tetrachloroethylene, a Group 2A carcinogen which means that it is suspected to be carcinogenic to humans. It is also a central nervous system depressant and it can cause skin irritation. [4]  
This pillow may not be the best place to rest your head at night!

Phone case

The test results on a bright colored soft plastic smartphone case were surprising even to us. It showed over 30 unique substances that were off-gassing from this single case. One of these substances being… benzene! Imagine calling or texting your friend to talk about this horrible news item on benzene in factories that you saw on the television.               
The phone case represents a clear example of a product that was never designed for human interaction. Not a comforting thought considering the fact that we have these products in our hands and close to our mouths every day.

Compounding long term health effects

These short examples show that many of the products we surround ourselves with contain substances that can adversely affect our health. When looking at single products the risks they pose to us may seem small. The problem is that we are continuously surrounded by masses of these products.  In many cases the substances are inhaled or picked up dermally (through the skin) and are compounded in our fatty tissue. These substances stay in our bodies for long periods of time and accumulate as we pick up more and more. This results in serious long term health effects and risks, some of which do not only affect us but also our (future) offspring.

Forward

So what do we do? Get rid of everything we own? Live in a treehouse and avoid every chemical with a name that is difficult to pronounce? Ofcourse not!               
There’s no ingredients list for products like we know them for foodstuffs. In fact, it is rare for anybody but the producer of a chemical or compound (including the retailer but also the intermediate suppliers) to know about chemical composition of a product.

Consequently, the final manufacturer may have no idea about the chemical composition of his product and its associated environmental and human health risks.    

This is why Cradle to Cradle starts by defining what is in your product EXACTLY. Being free of harmful substances is not an end goal of a product, it is the bottom line. This goes two steps further than complying with rules and regulations; it is about taking full responsibility of your products and making sure that it is no way linked to negative human and environmental impacts.
EPEA performs scenario specific assessments on products to make sure that the right materials are used in the right place for the right amount of time. Product ingredients that are not safe, or pose a possible hazard, are identified. Together with suppliers, we optimize product compositions. This is not about controlling. It is about setting the right design intentions and cooperatively working our way there. The results are actual products that are healthy, safe and cyclable!
See the overview on the C2C Centre webpage here: http://www.c2c-centre.com/products


NB: Other products submitted to the off-gassing test were; a glossy magazine, boy´s pajama’s and a computer mouse. Due to sensitivity of the data product/producer names and/or brands are not shared. Contact EPEA for more information on test results.             
Images with this article were chosen randomly and do not show actual examples of the products that were tested.

[1] http://nos.nl/artikel/641831-stop-benzeen-in-fabrieken-china.html

[2] http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103646

[3] Test Report EPEA Nederland B.V. Product Emissions Test by using Microchamber. Eurofins Product Testing A/S. 23 April 2014.

[4] http://www.inchem.org/documents/iarc/vol63/tetrachloroethylene.html

 

Specialist:

Lars Luscuere

Scientific support

EPEA Nederland

Luscuere@epea.com

+31-85-104-42-31

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