Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

GreenGuard certification

O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles)

GreenGuard was launched in 2000 by Atlanta-based for-profit Air Quality Sciences (AQS), which is now a separate not-for-profit organization. Although GreenGuard was not designed specifically for fabrics, it is often advertised that a fabric is GreenGuard certified, because GreenGuard certified products can automatically meet the requirements of LEED 2009 CI Credit 4.5 and BIFMA X7.1.

GreenGuard has developed proprietary indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines based on standards developed by the government and by industrial bodies.  Maximum allowable emission levels in air concentrations, according to their website,  are based on those required by the state of Washington‘s indoor air quality program for new construction, the U. S. EPA’s procurements specifications, the recommendations from the World Health Organization, Germany’s Blue Angel Program,  LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) and LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI).

GreenGuard  has introduced a special certification, called GreenGuard Children and Schools,  which is intended to be applied to products which are used in schools, daycares, healthcare facilities, and places where sensitive adults may reside or work.  This certification is necessary because, as they say on their website, “children are more sensitive to environmental exposures than adults. Their bodies are still developing including their brains. They breathe faster than adults and in return receive a higher dose of indoor pollution per body weight. To account for inhalation exposure to young children, a body burden correction factor has been applied to the current GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified® allowable levels.”

Those products that pay the testing fee and pass muster earn the right to call themselves GreenGuard certified.  The GreenGuard Product Guide has become a purchasing tool for thousands of specifiers as they depend on it to preselect environmentally preferable products.

In order to become certified, all products are tested in dynamic environmental chambers following test methods as posted on the GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI)  web site.   The tests are designed to measure emitting chemicals coming from a product; that means it tests only for evaporating chemicals –  chemicals which are a gas at room temperature.  Specifically, for the GreenGuard certification, emission criteria are established for total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC), formaldehyde, total aldehydes, all individual chemicals with currently published Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), respirable particles and certain odorants and irritants.  The requirements for Children and Schools is more stringent and includes limits on emissions for total phthalates,  consisting of dibutyl (DBP), diethylhexyl (DEHP), diethyl (DEP), dimethyl (DMP), butylbenzyl (BBP) and dioctyl (DOP) phthalates, because, again according to the GreenGuard website, “Results from recent research indicate that inhalation is an important route of exposure to phthalates and that these chemicals have been associated with endocrine disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders, asthma and allergies.”

GreenGuard, by measuring only emitting chemicals, is significant for what it does not measure:

  • It does not measure any of the heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, etc.), such as those used in fabric dyestuffs, because they are not emitted at standard indoor air conditions;
  • It does not measure PVC,  which is a polymer and therefore not volatile (however, some PVC based product types have a special formulation which enables them to meet GreenGuard standards);
  • It does not measure phthalates  except in the Children and Schools certification; phthalates are semi volatile, and don’t begin to evaporate until approximately 7 days after exposure to the air.
  • It does not evaluate the manufacture of a product, nor any byproducts created during production or disposal
  • It does not evaluate any social justice issues
  • It does not evaluate carbon footprint issues

Nobody can debate that we need to rid the indoor environment from irritating contaminants that can have serious effects on people’s health, productivity and quality of life.  Since

Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air can be as much as 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, this issue must be taken seriously by designers.  It is incumbent on them to specify products (including fabrics) that are low-emitters of formaldehyde and all the other volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor indoor air.  But it is also true that air quality is not the only contributor to poor health, productivity and quality of life of the occupants of indoor spaces – after all, our skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it’s quite permeable.  So designers should not take this certification as assurance that a product is the best environmental choice – not only does it bypass those chemicals that do not evaporate, it does not look at the production of the fabric, any social justice issues, nor does it look at carbon footprint.  Indeed, a product containing PVC, one of the most toxic substances known – highly toxic in all its phases: manufacture, use, and disposal – can be  GreenGuard certified.

According to GreenGuard itself, as is published on their web site:  GreenGuard is a product emissions performance-based standard, and as such, the complete toxicity effects of the chemical emissions from the products tested are beyond its scope.

So what are the take aways?  Remember that GreenGuard tests for emitting chemicals only, and they do that very well.   But it should not be used as a tool to evaluate a product’s environmental impact and safety.

6 thoughts on “GreenGuard certification

  1. Karen Rodriguez says:

    Very helpful article…thanks! Two clarifications: although Greenguard does test products, they generally don’t test on an individual product basis, as most 3rd-party independent test labs do. Greenguard prefers to test your entire product offering, or a subset, such as an identifiable collection. This may be an effective marketing approach for large companies, but makes the entry fee for small businesses extremely high.

    Also, Greenguard (Environmental Institute) is now owned by UL Environment, a division of Underwriters Laboratories. From their URL, Greenguard.org you might assume that Greenguard is a non-profit organization–slightly different business model.

  2. I think every home and building should be built to the highest LEED standard! It doesn’t cost too much more in supplies and will keep you feeling better in the long run, no one wants to build a home and find it it is “sick”!

    1. Terry says:

      I thought so too. But then I looked at the LEED standards. Actually, a building can get LEED certification and still have very unhealthy indoor air. In last couple yrs, LEED has begun to give more attention and “points” related to indoor air quality. But they’ve got a long ways to go in terms of a LEED certification meaning that a building has indoor air without any contaminants. This is because initially LEED’s focus was on use of recycled and “sustainable” products, and energy efficiency rather than a primary concern with indoor air quality. And many building materials that use recycled materials also contain many volatile organic compounds or other chemicals that are either toxic or off-gas into the indoor air. One key example: there are NO insulation products that do not have some kind chemical component that contributes to indoor air quality in some way. LEED has done a lot of good especially in energy efficiency & recycling, but in my opinion, they need to focus LEED standards with a priority focus on indoor air quality as a major factor for qualifying for LEED certification.

  3. Terry says:

    GreenGuard certification is certainly a helpful tool, but even for the chemicals & toxins it does test & certify, a GreenGuard certification does not necessarily mean a product is healthy or without adverse human health effects for the tested chemicals or toxins. Why? Because GreenGuard relies on various government & industrial standards for determining what an “acceptable” exposure is to specific chemicals or toxins. For many chemicals, there are no standards. In many cases where there are standards, the allowable exposure standards are quite high & based on levels to avoid death or severe toxicity rather than causing less than lethal adverse health effects. In many cases where fed gov set “health” or “occupational health” standards the standards are weak because industry successfully lobbied Congress to weaken standards. So while I welcome GreenGuard certification as another tool to assess relative health hazards of chemicals & toxins in products, by no means does a GreenGuard certification mean a product is 100% safe or free of potential adverse human health effects. It does not even mean a product is 100% free of a particular chemical like formaldehyde, but rather it means the product does not EXCEED whatever standard exists. Are there any chemicals for which the gov or another entity has established a ZERO standard? If GreenGuard knows of such, please give us the list. To my knowledge no gov agency has even rstablished a zero standard for formaldehyde which has well known, well documented health hazards even at very low levels. So a GG certification just means a certified product will be less hazardous than one without certification. That’s very useful for the consumer & better than nothing. But the danger is that people may assume a GG certification means a product will be totally free of chemicals or toxins of concern & all potential adverse health effects; but that’s not the case at all.

    1. Another thing to remember is that GreenGuard tests only for evaporating chemicals – and not all chemicals of concern evaporate – heavy metals, for instance.

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