The powerful new Banksy mural that appeared on a garage in Wales just before Christmas 2018 seems at first to be a timeless and global statement. On one wall, a whimsical image of a child standing, sled at their feet, arms thrown wide, face upturned, tongue extended to catch swirling white flakes. Around the corner, on the adjacent wall, a fire rages in a bin. Ashes rise in an arc that transcends the corner of the wall, and fall on the unsuspecting child. In this image I saw a child of poverty, or perhaps of the future, whose innocent commune with nature has been diminished by the dumpster fire that our generation allows to rage on a once generous earth.

Like the Dickensian dystopia it evokes, the mural is also particular to a place and time – Port Talbot, a town situated hard against the Tata Steel mill on the southwest coast of Wales. Local authorities were quick to take umbrage, noting that the town had been falsely accused of having the worst air quality in the United Kingdom when, in fact, monitoring stations report pollution at nearly 0.3147% below the national guideline for unhealthy air.[1] As is so often the case with fenceline communities, statistics don’t capture the lived experience of the people, whose homes, cars, gardens, even pets, have been blanketed in soot from the smokestacks. It was a local resident, a former steelworker, who petitioned Banksy to “do some artwork . . . because of the dust we have falling out from the sky.”[2]

The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.[3] Fenceline communities adjacent to industrial facilities are never wealthy. From the mill town of Port Talbot, Wales, to the PVC towns[4] of Mossvile, Louisiana, and Point Comfort, Texas, these often vibrant communities bear the injustice of toxic burdens for the rest of us - including, and especially, those who define healthy materials through product certifications and building standards such as LEED, WELL, and the Living Building Challenge.[5]

Last year, HBN completed an extensive environmental health evaluation of insulation products (summary table viewable here).[6] Our research concluded that mineral wool products are superior to foam board and spray foam products, and further, that the advent of formaldehyde-free products announced by two major producers, Rockwool and Owens Corning, could improve mineral wool’s ranking further. (We named the formaldehyde free products among our top healthy product innovations in 2017). And yet, we learned recently of grassroots opposition to a new Rockwool insulation plant in Ranson, West Virginia, where over 11,000 people have joined the opposition Facebook group. People opposing the plant cite concerns ranging from lack of transparency in the siting process that would locate the factory across the street from a school to air pollution permits that would allow nearly 400 tons of air pollution annually, including nearly 70 tons of formaldehyde, from an industry we thought was on a path to eliminating formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.[7]

The realities of manufacturing communities - Ranson, Mossville, and Port Talbot - must not be ignored when evaluating healthy buildings and materials. Their inconvenient truths do not make the work of identifying healthier materials easier. But as my former colleague Tom Lent writes in his detailed argument for full transparency in this month’s newsletter The Solution is Transparency (his final publication as HBN’s Senior Advisor), people have both a right, and an obligation to know what’s in building products, where they come from, and what life is like there: “Only through full public disclosure and assessment of contents and hazards can we identify and solve the problems – in buildings, on worksites, and in communities – created by hazardous substances in building products.”  

You can learn how to Practice Transparency Now, and get your first free CEU credits for 2019, with this helpful online training offered by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative.


Footnotes

[1] Lewis, Sofia. “Dear Bansky: Port Talbot Doesn’t Deserve to Be an Emblem of the Global Pollution Crisis.” The Independent, December 20, 2018.https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/banksy-port-talbot-graffiti-wales-michael-sheen-steel-pollution-environment-a8692821.html.

[2] Walford, Jessica. “The Former Steelworker Who Says He Asked Banksy to Come to Port Talbot.” WalesOnline, December 20, 2018. (quote from video clip.) https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/former-steelworker-who-says-asked-15576292.

[3] This formulation has been expressed in numerous speeches and articles by Bryan Stevenson, 1995 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, whose Equal Justice Initiative has saved 125 men from the death penalty.

[4] An inventory of pollution affecting fenceline communities in the PVC supply chain is available in our Chlorine and Building Materials Project.

[5] LEED (Leadership In Energy Efficiency and Design) is a product of the US Green Building Council; the WELL Building Standard is a product of the WELL Building Institute; the Living Building Challenge is a product of the International Living Future Institute.

[7] See Citizens Concerned About Rockwool on Twitter @CCARRansom ; For an overview of Rockwool opponents arguments see also Ross, Tim. “The Danish Dilema.” Counterpunch, January 3, 2019.  https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/01/03/the-danish-dilemma/?fbclid=IwAR0aAsYf_8aewopiLnFVvGcruIseFl1TjfcszMfWgZYU22Y-sIknfY4B01k