Builders Share Their Thoughts on Health and Hazards in Building Products

Written by Dana Saylor, National Programs Manager, Building Clean

The Building Clean project is interested in shaping research and educational materials that can help builders take a health-centered approach to understand building products, including what chemicals of concern are in building products and how to identify and purchase healthier options. A part of that goal has been to understand what education and training are currently available for building professionals on toxic materials in building products, their impacts on residents and installers, and healthier alternatives. By connecting with organizations who provide training to builders, we are developing a better understanding of the information being taught and where discussions on these issues could be expanded.

However, within this effort, it is also important to understand what issues surrounding hazardous chemicals in building products construction professionals consider to be of greatest interest and concern. Building Clean took a step towards doing that in our recent “Healthier Building Products and Practices in Construction” survey, which drew valuable feedback from respondents and is highlighted in the summary below.

“Healthier Building Products and Practices in Construction” Survey Summary

Who Participated

Respondents came from a variety of backgrounds ranging from architects to materials specifiers to carpenters, and almost all had a focus on green building and energy efficiency. 60% of respondents work in single-family, 26% in multifamily, and 43% in affordable housing. Several eastern and central states are represented here, including Washington D.C.

Of those who are seeking green building certifications, Energy Star was the most reported, followed by LEED, LBC, NGBS, and Earth Craft. Others mentioned were EPA Indoor airPLUS, Zero Energy Ready, WaterSense, and WELL.

All respondents were curious and concerned about hazardous chemicals in building products, with about a third stating they have received education or attended webinars related to this topic. Those who achieved professional certification hold HERS, LEED AP+, LFA, WELL, and LEED Green Associate credentials. Nearly half of the respondents have used online sources or databases to find healthier materials, including Pharos, HomeFree, Mindful Materials, Green Building Advisor, BuildingClean, SF Tool, Red2Green, UL Product Lens, and

Topics of Interest

Overall, there was a high level of interest in all of the topics we listed, including which building products are most harmful to health, carry third-party certifications and ingredient transparencies, and which products/brands are healthier alternatives. There is also interest in getting a general overview of chemicals but keeping it framed to building products and brands.

Concerns About Products

Respondents were concerned about specific products, including PVC, resins, adhesives, caulks, paints, flooring, particle board countertops, treated lumber, glues in engineered products, foam board insulation, spray foam, and fiberglass. Other concerns mentioned include harmful dust from materials such as drywall, concrete, treated wood, and asbestos tile—issues that adversely impact workers and installers as they are typically only present during construction. VOCs were the only specific chemical or chemical group mentioned.

Cost was the most reported concern. One piece of insight provided was that “even clients who are aware of the concerns of healthier materials are concerned about the cost, ‘It would be great to have cost information to share to show people that the “mark up” is not always there.'” Although more needs to be done, Building Clean has done some research to show that efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made building products can be cost-competitive with their alternatives, which we highlight in the following “Buy Local, Buy Healthy and Save!” brochure and “Appliance Cost and Country of Assembly Survey.

Performance was also mentioned by one participant as a concern, as well as the legitimacy of classifying certain products as “healthier,” indicating they “would like to see certifications that truly meet green building standards.”

Buying Healthier Products

Of those who are in the position to buy healthier products, a majority indicated that they do so on a regular basis or sometimes. A few respondents indicated that they were unsure which products are healthier as well as where to purchase healthier materials. Accessibility and affordability were mentioned as deterrents for not purchasing them.

For builders of market-rate housing, when asked if the use of healthier building practices and materials has given them an edge in attracting business, about half of the respondents who answered this question said it has. For some, it is less clear as they have only just begun to market these ideas to clients and have yet to understand if it will lead to new business.


Overall, respondents agreed that more information and education are needed across the construction industry to understand hazardous chemicals in building products and identify healthier options. Pursuing or mandating green building certifications in construction projects is one way to increase the knowledge and use of healthier products among builders, but how do we get beyond that to where healthier products are the first choice or the only option? Outside the pursuit of green building certifications, how do we ensure that the products architects specify for a project are those being used? Additionally, including homeowners in the conversation is important, and educating them on potential hazards in building materials is also needed.

There is also the issue of classifying certain products as “healthier.” We use that term to simplify communications about products that are third-party certified to be free from hazardous chemicals known to have an impact on human health. However, some certified products still contain chemicals that may be harmful to human health, so the question remains as to whether those products should be labeled as healthier vs. less toxic. One respondent said that some educational presentations on healthier products are hosted by building materials suppliers, which made them skeptical.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. Building Clean’s work with affordable housing builders to source cost-competitive products that are efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made is helping to address this concern, but it is on a small scale. Upcoming product consultation work with additional partners will hopefully help us continue to show that products with these qualities are not always more expensive. However, financial costs should also be balanced against the cost of using less efficient products, contain hazardous chemicals, and are manufactured far away.

You can read the full BPA eJournal here.

The Building Performance Association (BPA) is a 501(c)6 industry association committed to redefining the industry by supporting policies that will improve and increase the expansion of home and building performance, energy efficiency businesses, and industries.

Buy Local, Buy Healthy, and Save!

Cost is key when it comes to how building owners, managers, builders, and homeowners decide what products to purchase and can take precedence over other important qualities like a product’s health impacts and efficiency, especially when the budget is tight. Building Clean’s work with affordable housing builders over the past few years to help them source building products that are more efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made has shown that this compromise isn’t always necessary and that these products can be cost-competitive, if not cheaper than their counterparts.

The Buy Local, Buy Healthy, and Save! brochure highlights just some examples of Building Clean’s work helping affordable housing builders across the country select and purchase efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made products that save them money! It helps make the case for builders who want or need to use products with these qualities but are also concerned with the cost.

Our Appliance Cost and Country of Assembly Survey of ENERGY STAR refrigerators, clothes dryers, and clothes washers found that the United States made or assembled appliances are cost-competitive with foreign assembled appliances and that often the least expensive energy-efficient appliances are assembled or made in the United States.  Following our findings, at the end of the document, are some resources on how to find U.S.-made appliances to support American manufacturing.

Why You Need to Use a Certified HVAC Installer

Written by Michael Miranda, LEED AP, HERS Rater—Outreach Manager, Building Clean

Your heating system (furnace, boiler, or heat pump) is likely to die during the middle of winter when it is working the hardest. The same is true with your air conditioner (A/C or heat pump) when it is trying to pump all that heat out of your home, during the peak of summer. It will typically die at the most inconvenient time, and you will want to rush to get it replaced.

Instead of scrambling to find companies online, looking through their reviews, calling to see how much they will charge and who is available to come by during their busy season, we recommend taking the following steps now, so you are ready when you suddenly have no heat or air conditioning.


U.S. Department of Energy Home Improvement Expert™ highlights that “research findings reveal most HVAC installations do not meet manufacturer specifications, which can reduce efficiency up to 20% and cause comfort problems.” In California, similar issues were found1 and even basic maintenance tasks were often performed incorrectly.2 Heating and cooling your home is typically more than 50% of your utility bills, so poor-quality installations will keep utility bill savings out of your wallet.

I’m sure you have heard horror stories about contractors, if not having experienced it yourself. That is why it is best to choose a certified HVAC installer, and you can easily find some below.

Three resources to find local, certified HVAC installers by zip code:
NATE-Certified Technician—some rebate programs require NATE-certified installers3.

The ENERGY STAR Certified Homes program requires that HVAC installers are credentialed by one of these two programs: ACCA’s Quality Assured (QA) Contractor or Advanced Energy’s Energy Star Credentialed HVAC Contractors.


Pricing can vary greatly between installers, so it is always best to get two to three quotes.

Is your air conditioner or heating system showing some signs of old age? If so, then you might want to call two or three installers for a quote on a new system during the off-season, when prices tend to be lower. Replacing your old HVAC system in the off-season can save you money, compared to prices you might get during the peak season. The lifetime of HVAC systems varies, with air conditioners lasting around 16 years, furnaces around 20 years, and boilers around 24 years.


Installing ENERGY STAR-certified products is worth it. You should check the websites of your energy utilities or local energy efficiency organization, as they might provide rebates for energy-efficient systems. If you are having trouble finding rebates, check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) website, and enter your zip code.

To compare quotes, a higher efficiency product will have a higher SEER, CEER, EER, HSPF, or AFUE efficiency rating.

A good HVAC installer will do load sizing calculations (ACCA Manual J) to right-size your HVAC system. Right-sizing the HVAC system allows it to operate at peak efficiency, and oversized systems usually cost more than right-sized systems. An oversized system will also short-cycle, by turning on, running for a few minutes, turning off, and then turning back on just a few minutes later. This reduces the efficiency and life of the equipment. It is specifically important with air conditioners because the short cycling does not allow the air conditioner to dehumidify the air.


You can find American made building products, including HVAC products at

You can search by product type/CSI-code, for furnaces, air conditioners, boilers, and heat pumps. Support American manufacturing and jobs, by buying American-made products. There are more than 900 manufacturing sites across the United States producing HVAC products and components.

Just 50 of the more than 900 manufacturing sites across the USA producing HVAC products and components


Tell the HVAC installer that you want them to add the U.S. Department of Energy Home Improvement Expert™ Checklist to your contract, and that they need to complete it and sign it before you will make the final payment.

You can download the checklists for different types of HVAC work, on their website under the Heating & Cooling and Fresh Air System sections.

1. The California Energy Commission (CEC) in a 2008 report estimated that 85% of central air conditioning system replacements and 50% of central air conditioning systems installed in residential new construction did not meet the manufacturer’s quality control specifications for airflow and refrigerant charge, and the CEC’s duct sealing requirement (less than 10% duct leakage to outside).

2. NMR: Field observations of 13 technicians servicing units with preset faults revealed that even basic maintenance tasks were often performed incorrectly.  Often the most impactful tasks for improved energy performance were not even attempted.

3. The Southern California Edison (SCE) residential quality installation and quality maintenance program requires that 50% of an HVAC contractor’s technicians be certified by North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

INFORM Magazine Article: Specifying American-Made Building Products

Builders experienced shocks to their supply chain in early 2020 from COVID-19. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reported in April 2020, 45% of contractors experienced shipping delays or supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 as manufacturing facilities and ports closed overseas.

The building product industry is highly globalized and contractors are often reliant on imports. According to Richard Branch, chief economist at Dodge Data & Analytics, 30% of all building products used in the U.S. are from China, with another 20% sourced from Mexico and Canada. Smaller, lower-cost, and more standardized products are typically manufactured outside the U.S. The products most likely to be sourced overseas include hardware, electrical materials, lighting fixtures and bulbs, plumbing, and fire protection systems. Domestic manufacturers also rely on raw materials and components from overseas to build their finished products.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues these impacts are expected to remain, leading to higher prices and supply chain bottlenecks for contractors, especially as construction rates return to normal. As a result, contractors and manufacturers are seeking ways to build a more resilient supply chain.

For many common building materials, it is possible for builders to find a domestically made alternative. Contractors can ensure their projects are flexible enough to avoid tariff risks by specifying and purchasing American-made building products. Always specifying at least one product made close to home makes sure your project’s contractors have options.

Read the full article at INFORM. Adds Building Enclosure Products to American-Made Building Product Database, an online tool that links the energy, housing, and health sectors together, today announced the addition of building enclosure products to its American-made building product database.

“We are excited to expand our database to include building enclosure products,” said BlueGreen Alliance Foundation National Program Manager Dana Saylor. “These products—from drywall to brick—are crucial to the construction of every building. Using American-made building products helps guarantee a reliable supply chain, it also sustains more than 4,600 building product manufacturing facilities across the United States. Energy-efficient products and recycled building materials alone support more than 320,000 American manufacturing jobs.”

The new building enclosure section of the database includes 1,985 production sites making products from grout to masonry, wood framing, sheathing, waterproofing materials, and more.

For an exterior wall, the building enclosure typically includes all building components from the interior surface of the wall outward to the exterior surface of the building, including windows and doors. Similarly, for a roof the enclosure typically includes all building components from the interior surface of the ceiling outward to the roof membrane, asphalt roofing, or roof shingles. For foundations, building components extend from the interior surface of the foundation wall and floor/concrete slab outward to the foundation insulation and soil. has separate sectors on roofing, insulation, joint sealants, and windows, doors and skylights that together with the building enclosure listings represent all the U.S. manufacturing in this important building concept.

Building Clean is an initiative of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation and the Building Clean American-made products database also includes appliances, lighting, plumbing, roofing, sealants, HVAC, and water filtration products. The database is easily searchable by manufacturing location, material, product type, or CSI-code to  find products. Report Finds “Buy American” Policies Would Dramatically Boost Manufacturing Jobs Making Energy-Efficient Products

The report, entitled Manufacturing Efficiency: How Buy America Policy Can Boost Jobs Manufacturing Energy-Efficient Products, compared the manufacturing job creation potential of strengthening all retrofits to full deep retrofits, increasing the retrofit rate, and implementing Buy American policies.

“Increasing the retrofit rate, strengthening retrofits, and enacting Buy American policies will deliver more than 170,000 manufacturing jobs across the nation, while driving down emissions and securing a more sustainable future for the nation,” said Jason Walsh, President of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation. “This report shows the tremendous opportunity in making the products we need to make our homes and buildings more energy efficient at a time when America’s manufacturing sector is in need of revitalization and millions of Americans have applied for unemployment during the ongoing pandemic.”

The study found that increasing demand for American-made energy-efficient housing products through Buy American policies and deep retrofits will boost job creation in manufacturing, with appliance and HVAC manufacturing showing the most growth. At the current estimated retrofit rate of 2%, just strengthening retrofits to full deep retrofits would support 132,000 manufacturing jobs. Adding a Buy American policy to a deep retrofit rate of 2% would create another 20,000 jobs. Finally, the report explored the impact of increasing the deep retrofit rate to 4% while also enacting a Buy American policy. Under this scenario more than 170,000 additional jobs would be created.

“Our nation is long overdue for a massive infrastructure investment, including funds to modernize our existing buildings,” said United Steelworkers (USW) International President Tom Conway. “Using American-made materials as we upgrade our homes and businesses will not only ensure that they are safer and more efficient, but will also create good, union manufacturing jobs, helping rebuild our battered economy and laying the foundation for a brighter future for all.”

With the right policies in place, energy efficiency could be a driver of significant growth of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Deep retrofits go beyond basic weatherization and feature exterior continuous insulation; energy-efficient appliances; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC); and windows.

“The benefits of enacting the actions outlined in Manufacturing Efficiency are undeniable,” Walsh said. “The creation of manufacturing jobs in communities across the nation will help our nation heal from the devastating economic impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Stopping energy waste will strengthen our fight against climate change. And, ramping up residential deep retrofits—especially in affordable housing—will make the buildings we live and work in healthier and safer.”

Click below to download the report.

Home Radon Levels Go From Low to Dangerous within 150 Feet

By Michael Miranda, LEED AP, HERS Rater, Building Clean Outreach Manager


Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. Radon is released as radioactive metals uranium, thorium, and radium break down in rocks, soil, and groundwater. It enters homes primarily through openings in the basement or slab. You can’t see or smell radon. The only way to know your level of exposure is to test for it.

After reviewing state historical testing data for radon levels in the Rochester area, Building Clean suggested that Flower City Habitat for Humanity—a builder of high-quality and healthy affordable housing—perform radon testing on its latest homes. Flower City Habitat for Humanity conducted radon testing on four new homes built within 300 feet of each other.


Despite the four homes having been built the same way—by the same builder and during the same time period—the tests found that radon levels varied significantly within just 150 feet. The results found low levels of radon on one side of the street but dangerous levels on the other side. 

Radon testing in three of the homes on the same side of the street found levels of 1.0 pCi/L or less. Testing in the fourth home, which is across the street from the other three homes, found a radon level of 8.12 pCi/L. To put these numbers in context, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers it necessary to remediate a home if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or higher, and urges remediation if the level is between 2 and 4 pCi/L. Internationally, the World Health Organization recommends action if radon levels are above 2.7 pCi/L.

Luckily Flower City Habitat has a valued volunteer in Jim Bradley, who has been working closely with the Building Clean team and has experience dealing with radon.

To test the Flower City Habitat homes, Jim used his own electronic radon monitor. Testing was performed in the basements of the homes while the homes were in the final phases of construction with finishes and appliances being installed. The electronic radon monitor has a screen that constantly displays the long-term and short-term radon level, updated daily and hourly respectively.

The electronic radon monitor results were confirmed with a traditional short-term radon test kit that is mailed to a lab for analysis. The short-term radon test kit revealed that sealing the sump pump cover produced a small reduction in radon levels.


The EPA classifies every U.S. county into one of three radon zones—Zone 1, 2, or 3—based on predicted average indoor radon levels. The four homes that were tested are in a Radon Zone 2—counties with predicted average indoor radon levels from 2 to 4 pCi/L. During its Rochester work, Building Clean found New York State Department of Health data showing that 10% of homes with basements in Rochester have radon levels greater than 4 pCi/L.

Zone 1 counties are expected to have the highest radon levels, with predicted average indoor levels greater than 4 pCi/L. Zone 3 counties are expected to have the lowest radon levels with predicted average indoor levels less than 2 pCi/L.

The EPA stresses that no matter where you live, and no matter the radon zone, the best practice is to test your home for radon. In multifamily buildings, the EPA and the Surgeon General recommend testing all units below the third floor for radon.

After the test findings, the next step was to install a pipe from the sealed sump pump cover to the outdoors, so that radon under the foundation has an easy path out before having a chance to enter the house. Installing the pipe is called “passive radon ventilation,” but that is not always enough and a fan (powered ventilation) is sometimes needed to pull the radon out. Follow-up electronic radon monitor results showed no impact from passive ventilation connected to the sump pump cover, and powered fan ventilation would be needed.


With energy efficiency and healthy homes being more valued, closing openings that let in pests and pollution and let out expensive conditioned air also has the potential to change home radon levels. Home improvement work such as installing a sump pump, adding a bath fan in the basement, air-sealing, weatherization, and more may allow more radon in or stop it from leaving. Re-testing your home’s radon levels after making these types of improvements is highly recommended. Because radon levels tend to vary from day to day and season to season, a short-term test (2 to 90 days) is less likely than a long-term test (more than 90 days) to tell you your year-round average radon level.

There are two types of do-it-yourself radon test methods, a traditional radon test kit that is mailed to a lab for analysis and an electronic radon monitor that displays radon results on a screen or a smart-phone app.

Both methods can be used to perform a short-term test (2 to 90 days) and a long-term test (more than 90 days). Before buying a mail-in short-term radon test kit, be sure to confirm how long you can test as some only test for 2 to 7 days.

Builders might consider investing in an electronic radon monitor, like the one Flower City Habitat for Humanity used, so they can monitor radon levels within multiple homes and buildings. According to the EPA, nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the United States is likely to have elevated radon levels. Radon is estimated to cause about 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.


Remediation techniques can differ by home. An experienced radon mitigation professional should be consulted to reduce elevated radon levels.

Building Clean offers free assistance to non-profit affordable housing organizations to help build healthier and energy-efficient affordable housing with American-made building products. If you are interested in learning more about Building Clean’s free services, email


Radon Testing Resources

  • Check with the local or state health or environmental protection agency to see if they offer radon test kits for low or no cost.
  • The EPA lists organizations within your state that you can contact about possible discounted or free radon test kits.
  • If you would like to have a professional conduct the radon testing, the EPA offers direction.

Resources to Reduce Radon Levels

If elevated radon levels are found, the following information can help:

  • EPA Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction: How to Fix Your Home;
  • EPA resources on choosing a radon mitigation specialistand
  • The American Lung Association blog post on a staff member’s radon mitigation experience in her own home.

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Building Clean Teams up With HPN Select to Help Affordable Housing Owners Find Local Building Products

“Through this partnership, HPN Select and its members will have access to important information about the sourcing of their building products. Using locally manufactured products not only supports local economies and grows jobs, but decreases the environmental impact of these projects,” said Lauren Asplen, Director of Healthy Sustainability Programs at the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation. “We are thrilled to be partnering with some of the best nonprofit developers in the nation.” is an initiative of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation and is dedicated to linking the energy, housing, job, and health sectors together in order to tap the benefits of energy efficiency for millions of low-income families. Building Clean has a database of U.S.-made, healthier energy efficient products designed to help architects and designers, consumers, contractors and developers, and manufacturers find products to help them capture the benefits of energy efficiency retrofits—including lower utility bills, improved tenant health, and increased economic development.

The mission of HPN Select is to provide high quality procurement solutions for the affordable housing sector. A Housing Partnership Network social enterprise, HPN Select focuses on delivering value-for-money contracts that achieve the right balance between price, quality, and service for its customers in order to give members greater financial capacity to fulfill their own mission related goals.

In addition to announcing the partnership, Building Clean and HPN Select announced that Select’s Vice President of Sustainability, Richard Kingston, would be presenting at the Building Clean 2019 Summit on November. 14, 2019 in Chicago. Registration for the summit is open and may be completed here:

What’s In Your Water?

The drinking water systems of approximately 19 million people have been contaminated by a class of chemicals known as PFAS, according to a recent report by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University. The study found 610 contaminated sites in 43 states.

PFAS is short for per-or polyfluoroalkyl substances and what makes them great for consumer and building products are their properties that repel water and stains. However, the same properties that make them popular also make them dangerous because they do not break down easily and are not water soluble—meaning they stick around in the environment. There are a number of pathways for human exposure, one of which being the water that we drink. PFAS get into our drinking water through industrial waste from sites where they are created, disposed of, or used. Exposure through water is especially prevalent near military bases, firefighting training stations, and industrial facilities.

However, you do not need to live near one of these sites to have been exposed to PFAS. Because of their persistence in the environment, PFAS are found in drinking water systems and wells across the United States.

The exact health effects of PFAS are not totally understood yet. There are more than 3,000 chemicals in the PFAS family and tracing back health effects is difficult. Two of the worst PFAS chemicals—PFOA and PFOS—have been phased out because studies linked exposure to:

  • Testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancers;
  • Weakened childhood immunity;
  • Low birth weight;
  • Endocrine disruption;
  • Increased cholesterol; and
  • Weight gain in children.

These two PFAS chemicals are no longer in use in the United States but evidence suggests that the chemicals developed to replace them may be just as harmful.

The persistence of PFAS in the environment makes it difficult, but not impossible, to protect yourself. One step you can take is installing a water filtration system to protect you and your family. Check out for a FREE database where you can find an American-made water filtration system that works for you.

Latest Project from A Tiny Home for Good Applauded by Building Clean

The IUE-CWA Housing Corp. funded the build and also supported Building Clean as a product selection consultant. Building Clean works to find healthier, locally sourced, and more energy-efficient products at an affordable price so that the benefits of sustainable building practices are shared by everyone, regardless of the income.“We congratulate A Tiny Home for Good on completing its latest project in its quest to end homelessness,” said Building Clean National Program Manager Dana Parker. “At this afternoon’s ribbon cutting ceremony, the new renters will not only find a home, but one that is healthier, more energy efficient, and built with locally or U.S.-made products as much as possible.

Building Clean is an online database that allows residents, architects, workers, non-profits, and others to find local, healthy energy-efficient building products for their projects.

“Building Clean helps to put resident well being on an equal footing with lower utility bills,” said Parker. “We also help grow the regional economy and manufacturing sector by sourcing products as close as possible to the construction site. Building a stronger local economy means A Tiny Home for Good not only helps reduce homelessness but does it while supporting Syracuse’s tax base and employment.”

“They may be tiny homes but they have a huge impact throughout the Syracuse community and we’re proud to help them accomplish their great work,” added Parker.