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Junk Science - is it Safe to Specify Anything Anymore?

are we responsible for making every building perfectly safe, for making every location accessible to every person, for selecting only products that will not bother anyone, regardless of cost?

The recent interest green design and indoor air quality raises some interesting questions.

What is society's responsibility to the individuals that make up that society? What is the individual's responsibility? As design professionals, what is our responsibility? These questions also apply to hazardous materials, ADA, and similar issues.

About twenty years ago, the building industry was forced to stop using an effective, unique natural material - asbestos. The supposed danger forced many owners to remove existing material at great expense, and at greater risk than if it had been left in place.

Was the total ban of asbestos necessary? No. The asbestos scare was based on the effects on people who worked in the asbestos industry - not the general public. The resulting public furor resulted in complete elimination of a useful product that, properly used, poses little threat to our health.

There have been similar rumblings about glass fiber insulation. It is not inconceivable that some of us will someday sit in court, defending our use of what we now consider to be a safe product. And then there are the problems with foam insulations. Perhaps we should go back to stuffing walls with newspaper.

To remove all materials that might aggravate someone's allergies or cause minor discomfort to a small number of people is a noble idea. The problem, though, is that virtually every material will cause a problem for at least a few people. Now that you know that some paints, some carpets, and some chemicals may cause problems, you have no choice but to stop specifying them. Otherwise you may someday try to answer the question, "Why did you specify this product, knowing that my client could be harmed?" Of course, you didn't really know, but you did hear about it.

Many hazardous materials are used every day with little risk, and certainly without consideration of that risk. Consider gasoline. This is a highly volatile fluid that burns readily and explodes without too much coaxing. It is also carcinogenic and poisonous; it generates noxious odors, as well. Yet we casually carry several gallons of it with us daily, allow it to be hauled, dispensed, sold, and used by untrained people, and we occasionally use it in place of soap. I contend that this is much more dangerous to society as a whole than many of the products we are trying desperately to eliminate.

Without rational benefit/risk analysis, we are all potential targets of litigation. Are we responsible for protecting every child who refuses to wear a coat in winter, for making every building and highway perfectly safe, for making every location accessible to every person, for selecting only products that will not bother anyone, regardless of cost?

2002 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA


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