Material Health Certificate Encourages Product Optimization and Understanding

Tags: material health certificate (5) , built environment (629)

Architects, builders, and developers can’t also be chemists; they can’t be expected to know and understand every single ingredient in a product, much less the potential hazards those ingredients might pose. Cradle to Cradle Certification eases the burden by providing third-party identification and verification of substances within building materials, home products, personal care products, and apparel.

Through the Material Health attribute achievement level in the full certification or the stand-alone Material Health Certificate (MHC), manufacturers have a trusted way to communicate their work toward chemically optimized products and can support consumer interest in knowing more about chemicals in products and supply chains, and avoiding chemicals of concern.

Path to Healthier Products
A product often contains many materials and each material contains many chemicals. The Cradle to Cradle Material Health process looks at each of these levels to arrive at an overall assessment of the product’s material health impact.

But how do you determine material health? There are a few critical questions that a manufacturer explores on its path to healthier products. The Cradle to Cradle Certified assessor guides the manufacturer through these steps:

  1. Inventory: What’s in it?
    The manufacturer first needs to understand what is in their product. To do this, they conduct a chemical inventory of the product and create a Bill of Materials (BOM). The key question here is how deep do you go? An MSDS sheet typically looks at chemicals present at 1%, and other protocols require a deeper look to 1000 parts per million (ppm); the Cradle to Cradle methodology goes even further to look at 100 ppm. This is harder than you think because it’s usually the suppliers of the suppliers of finished product manufacturers that control chemical composition and thus know the chemical make-up of materials. Suppliers’ proprietary concerns may make it difficult for a manufacturer to directly receive formation information. This is where third-party Cradle to Cradle assessors can help. Assessors enter into non-disclosure agreements with the suppliers to be able to review and assess chemical formulations down to 100 ppm.
  2. Screening: What’s not in it? 
    While very few of the estimated 80,000 chemicals currently in commercial use have been tested, there are research-based lists of known hazards associated with chemicals. The Screening step is helpful to check against a list or lists of known, bad chemicals, to confirm whether some of that bad stuff is NOT in the product. However, it can’t tell you whether a product is safe because no list is exhaustive. 

    For example, in the case of flame-retardants there has been a history of “regrettable substitutions” where after a given chemical has been restricted (i.e. “listed”), the industry has rushed to replace it with a new substance with very similar properties. Typically, these substitutes are later found to be just as bad or worse, but because they haven’t previously been in use they do not appear on any restricted lists. If a manufacturer’s quest for optimization ends at the screening step, they risk getting caught on the “toxic treadmill” where new substances are added to restricted lists only to have them be replaced with very similar substances.

    In the Cradle to Cradle process, the assessor screens the BOM against Cradle to Cradle’s “Banned List.” If products contain substances that are the list—such as PVC, arsenic, or dibutyl phthalates—they can not receive certification at any level.

    This is a great first step, but to truly understand the human and environmental impacts of the chemicals in a product, full toxicological assessments need to be conducted by a chemist or toxicologist.
  3. Assessment: What hazards and risks do the ingredients pose? 
    If the product passes the Banned List scan, the assessor begins a full assessment of each material and every chemical within that material. These assessments are what distinguish C2C from other tools and claims in the marketplace.

    In this stage, the assessor judges each chemical’s potential risk across 24 different human and environmental “endpoints.” On the human health side endpoints include things such as carcinogenicity, endocrine disruption, and mutagenicity. On the environmental side, they look into things such as aquatic toxicity, terrestrial toxicity, and climatic relevance.

    To conduct the chemical assessment, the assessor examines all relevant sources, including measured data from experimental studies and the scientific literature, authoritative lists, and information derived from models and chemical analogs. If they cannot find evidence of adverse effects in an endpoint, it doesn’t mean the substance is safe; instead that is classified as a data-gap. This is the important difference between screening and full assessment: No data does not mean safe!

    Once the hazard profiles across all these endpoints have been filled in for a chemical, exposure analysis begins. This is an important step, because while hazards are inherent chemical properties, they may or may not manifest as risks for workers, users, or the environment, depending on their material and product context. For example, silica dust is an IARC Group 1 carcinogen in applications in which it is inhalable; however, for the silica in your windowpane there is no plausible inhalative exposure.

    As a result of the assessment, chemicals are given an A, B, C, or X rating. Materials get an A or B when it is determined that they largely support Cradle to Cradle design objectives. Materials are graded C if they are moderately problematic due to either their chemical risk or their inability to be composted or recycled. Materials assessed X have highly problematic properties that should be phased out.

    The Cradle to Cradle program encourages manufacturers to move away from chemicals that are X assessed or have data gaps. The level of optimization will inform the final level of certification. 
  4. Optimization: Safe for Humans and the Environment
    The final step is for the assessor and manufacturer to work together to optimize the product to only have A/B or C-rated materials. Strategies may include identifying alternatives, reformulation or redesign, or engaging in innovation and new research and development. The benefit of having full Cradle to Cradle assessments is that the data support better decision-making and knowledge for product design and development, chemical and material procurement, risk management, workplace safety, and more. For products that are not fully optimized, manufacturers are required to put a strategy in place for the eventual phase-out or optimization of any X assessed materials.

    Certifications are valid for two years; at each re-certification, manufacturers must demonstrate progress within their optimization strategy. For end-users, this demonstrates the commitment C2C manufacturers have toward the ultimate goal of optimization.

Ultimately, the Material Health assessment and the four-tiered rating system that results provides product specifiers with a simple-to-use solution to selecting safer products. Specifiers don’t have to interpret the science behind the certification or understand what each chemical is and does; the science has been done behind the scenes, and the specifier need only select which level of Material Health they wish to pursue.

Product Selection
Based on the process outlined above, each product certified under the Material Health methodology receives a rating of Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum (see Figure 1).

Like with the full Cradle to Cradle certification, each product earning a Material Health Certificate carries an achievement level, an easy-to-use guide that identifies a product’s Material Health rating and outlines the product’s achievements to help buyers select products that meet their goals. Material Health Certificates provide the same Material Health rating as in full certification but delve deeper into the product’s Material Health evaluation beyond just an overall rating of Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

The full Cradle to Cradle scorecard, and the Material Health Certificate, are the end result of an immense amount of behind-the-scenes assessment and evaluation into each product and its material makeup down to the tracest of chemicals. It represents two key steps in the sustainability movement: a commitment by manufacturers to phase out chemicals of concern, and a valuable tool for specifiers to better understand product makeup and, ultimately, help rid buildings and homes of harmful substances.

If you are a manufacturer interested in continuing your market leadership in the face of coming market and regulatory challenges, please contact Stacy Glass, VP, Built Environment, for more information: Or click here.