Are green products helping the planet?

May 1, 2008 7:19:42 PM PDT
Retail stores and manufacturers have found out that it pays green to go green. But the green trend has also flooded the market with claims and little proof -- which leaves consumers asking: how green are these companies?

"We've tried to phase out as much plastic as possible so all our cups are glass, everything we store food in is glass," said Katherine Havener from Holistic Moms Network.

Havener knows that plastics can release toxic gases. Now she's finding out that her daughters furniture, toys, even the kitchen cabinets could be hazardous.

They're so potentially dangerous that California approved a law last month, limiting the toxic fumes that come from all compressed wood products.

"It seems like we're enveloped in chemicals no matter what," said Havener.

Compressed wood products emit fumes often associated with that "new product" smell. Most are glued together by a resin made largely from formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

"We create formaldehyde in our bodies, so it's a natural compound. At certain levels it becomes dangerous," said Stowe Hartridge-Beam from SCS Indoor Air Quality Manager.

SCS, in Emeryville, is one of two major "green" certification companies that are in high demand by manufacturers who now, want to be certified green.

"From our perspective it means that you have a third party independent verification that a claim, a manufacturer is making, is valid and that it's meaningful," said Hartridge-Beam.

His job is to measure those smells we associate with new items, and find out in a laboratory if they're safe or dangerous.

By simply sitting at your desk, you are exposing yourself to a cocktail of chemicals that emit themselves over a period of time.

"It's in paint, flooring material, it's in furniture, it's in fabric, it's very prevalent," said Raja Tannous from Berkeley Analytical Associates.

To determine exactly how much, and how long a product emits chemicals, SCS puts the products to the test at Berkeley Analytical Associates.

"These are controlled chambers. We control the temperature and the humidity. We test fabrics, foams, paints, adhesives," said Tannous.

Samples of a variety of products are placed in dynamic chambers which can measure, in parts per billion, the amount of chemicals emitted over a certain period of time.

They can even test all of the materials in an office chair, which received the "Indoor Advantage Gold Seal" from SCS.

"So we can actually predict what kind of chemicals you are actually going to be breathing for the life of this chair," said Tannous. "They're floating around everywhere before this testing program started. Now we know how much of these things and what they are floating around, and what to do about them."

Because formaldehyde is so widely used, the Airborne Toxic Control Measure, approved on April 18th will reduce formaldehyde emissions in all wood products sold in the state of California. Its considered one of the most ambitious regulatory laws.

"Home Depot, Ikea, Wal-Mart, every retailer will be affected by this," said Tannous.

Not to mention the manufacturers of their products, and the entire building industry. The law requires a "chain of custody," which means every company will have to prove they buy and sell only certified wood products.

Because of vague claims and lack of proof from products who green wash their products, consumers are demanding more guidelines. Now it's pressuring companies to establish the science behind their green labels.


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