By. Josh Jacobs, Technical Information & Public Affairs Manager, UL
Over the years, the sustainable procurement movement has helped us reduce our use of virgin material, shrink our carbon impact, and procure more goods and services from local organizations. One thing the movement hasn’t done enough of is remind us to focus on the end users of the products or, in this case, school children. Children spend an estimated 943 hours in school each year and are particularly vulnerable to poor indoor air quality (IAQ) and chemical exposure due to their growing, developing brains and bodies. Shouldn’t our procurement processes take not just the planet into account, but people as well?
While administrators, parents, school boards, and others in education are beginning to focus more resources on sustainability and issues like zero waste, energy conservation, and global warming, it’s important to remember that a critical aspect of sustainability is supporting occupant wellness inside of buildings.
The procurement of goods to be used in schools is a powerful way to advance human health and wellness. With evidence-based information and innovative tools, procurement professionals can select products that have a smaller environmental footprint and support the well-being of a building’s occupants – certainly a critical factor when children are concerned.
How can administrators take steps to ensure that their purchases support healthy indoor environmental quality? The first step is to understand the potential wellness criteria different products bring to bear, and then access tools to evaluate those products for different sustainability attributes.
Low-Emitting Products that Support Good Indoor Air Quality
Every day, hundreds of products in our indoor environments emit a cocktail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air we breathe. Consider some common products in schools: construction materials, finishes used to construct and renovate schools, furniture, and flooring – all may off-gas into the air. Electronics including printers, computers, and smartboards can also emit VOCs into the air during use. Even consumer products like personal care items, cleaning products, and school supplies can contribute to pollutants in the air. Inhaling this “cocktail” of chemicals can result in health effects including headaches; eye, nose and throat irritation; nausea; malaise; fatigue; and asthma attacks.
Procurement professionals can help control the source of pollutants in their schools by purchasing low-emitting products that contribute minimally to poor IAQ. Cleaner air can reduce incidences of absenteeism and improve performance. A recent research study suggests that productivity improvements of 8-11% come from good IAQ.
The GREENGUARD Mark is one of the easiest ways for procurement professionals to identify low-emitting products. The GREENGUARD Gold Certificate, the most stringent low-emissions standard, offers stricter certification criteria and considers safety factors to account for sensitive individuals like children. The Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus is a mark that helps people find low-emitting carpet. These are just a couple of examples of certification labels that are referenced by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Building Rating System to help ensure low-emitting products are used in sustainable buildings.
By selecting low-emitting products, administrators can go a long way toward improving indoor environments for the students and staff who are in school buildings on a daily basis.
Non-Toxic Products to Reduce Chemical Exposure
Since the post-World War II era, tens of thousands of new chemical compounds have been introduced into our manufacturing processes and, as a result, our everyday lives. We have considered chemical emissions in our discussion of low-emitting products. However, chemical content of products can also impact human health. Dermal exposure can pose a significant risk to occupants.
Procurement professionals can use certain disclosure tools to choose products with material transparency. By seeking documentation such as health product declarations (HPDs) or products like the UL Product Lens reports, administrators can gain a better understanding of products’ ingredients and the exposure risk associated with that product though a hazard-based disclosure. By choosing products with low-risk during typical daily usage, you can avoid exposure to harmful materials.
These tools are important but can take a significant amount of research to understand for those who are not up to date on the latest chemical issues. Another way to reduce exposure to potentially toxic products is to look for certifications such as ECOLOGO® and Green Seal for cleaning and paper products. These certifications help organizations procure not only human-friendly products, but products that have minimized environmental impact as well.
Ergonomics for Comfort and Performance
According to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, ergonomics is the science and practice of designing jobs, tools, equipment, and environments to match the capabilities and limitations of the human body.
In a world where more and more time is spent seated in front of electronics, ergonomics is of growing importance. According to education furniture manufacturer, Smith System, 83 percent of school children sit at a chair-desk combination that is not suitable for their height. This can cause stress on the spine, neck, and shoulders. To support student and staff comfort, as well as reduce the potential for long-term musculoskeletal problems, administrators should select right-sized or adjustable desks, computer tables, and seating that enable proper posture. Purchase laptop and table supports to raise equipment to eye-level. There are standards for evaluating ergonomics in certain furniture products. For instance, BIFMA (the Business and Industrial Furniture Manufacturers Association) has an ergonomic standard called BIFMA G1 for office furniture.
Better Lighting for Alertness and Performance
According to the World Green Building Council, students in the U.S. showed a 36% increase in oral reading fluency when exposed to high-intensity light, while those in standard lighting conditions increased by only 16%. According to that same report, 27% of U.S. schools are reported to have inadequate lighting.
While accessing natural light by adding windows and skylights is unfortunately not an option for most schools, purchasing the optimal types of artificial lighting solutions is a possibility. For example, LED lighting reduces energy used and provides good artificial lighting. Schools may also purchase mobile lighting fixtures where needed to supplement limited lighting so as not to strain students’ eyes. When choosing a new lighting system, work with a lighting designer or other qualified expert to select the proper color, location, and intensity for the lights, which can have a large impact on occupant satisfaction in those spaces.
The Difference Sustainable Materials Can Make
By purchasing materials that offer superior health and wellness attributes, procurement can positively impact the comfort, health, and performance of occupants. However, understanding how products measure up when it comes to health and wellness can be a challenge. While the tools above can help procurement teams find better products easily, other information may not be as readily available.
Fortunately, new tools are available to help procurement professionals identify and compare products and their sustainability attributes. SPOT® is an online resource that catalogs hundreds of thousands of products, including electronics, building materials, furniture, flooring, and cleaning products, and provides information about sustainability certifications, environmental product declarations, and marketing information. SPOT is a free online site that offers extensive information about a product’s sustainability in a single location. This makes it easier for busy administrators to identify products with specific sustainability attributes and compare them with competitive products.
Educators can also find suggestions for green procurement in schools on the CHPS website.
Small Investment, Big Returns
Educators are under constant pressure to focus on education and student success. On top of that, they must also consider creating environments that are healthy, productive, and free of discomfort. While the desired answer may be a new zero energy, water, and waste school building, that may not be a realistic possibility in many districts. However, by taking small steps to procure products that support health and wellness, administrators can make a significant difference in creating a better indoor environment that supports student success and learning. The results could include reduced absenteeism, increased awareness and performance, better test scores, and reduced illness. The small investment in product research before purchasing items for schools can yield a big return on our most important assets: our kids.
Josh Jacobs is a Technical Information & Public Affairs Manager for UL. He is responsible for environmental and public health authority engagement and outside code participation for UL Environment.