Going Green: Making Environmental, Business Sense (and 'Cents') for O&P

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By Miki Fairley

Global warming. Greenhouse gases. Loss of biodiversity. Big carbon footprints. Endangered animals and plants. Species extinction. Stories and images about the grave dangers facing our planet-and by extension the more than six and one-half billion humans and myriad animals and plants that inhabit it-are increasingly visible in the media. Likewise, tips for reducing pollution and for conserving, recycling, and renewing abound. There's no doubt about it-going "green"is red hot.

As the saying goes, change starts with you. And if you are an O&P business owner, "change" can start right in your own clinical and office environment.

Incorporating environmentally friendly "green" aspects into your building materials, furnishings, and clinical and office operations can save you money, generate favorable publicity for your company, and help protect the health of your patients and staff. If you are an employee, you can bring helpful green ideas to the attention of owners and managers.

We're Surrounded

But first, some scary facts to consider:

"At last count there were about 86,000 chemicals used in building materials," says Andy Pace, owner of Safe Building Solutions, Waukesha, Wisconsin. "Only about three percent have been tested for their effects on human health. We have absolutely no idea what the effects are for the other 97 percent."

Most of us spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-and levels of air pollution inside the home (and likely other indoor environments) can be two to five times higher, and occasionally 100 times higher, than outdoor levels. Building materials and furnishings can outgas as long as the products are in use, notes Pace.

Andy Pace
Andy Pace

I've seen carpets that were over 20 years old, and when tested for outgasing, were still outgasing enough to kill laboratory rats," Pace says. Paint typically outgases for two and one-half to four and one-half years after application, Pace says. "Most people think that when the smell goes away, the danger is gone. And there are a lot of chemicals with little or no detectable odor."

One example of a commonly used material with known impact on health, Pace says, is formaldehyde. You may remember formaldehyde as the stuff pickling the frogs you dissected in high school biology class, but it is also widely used in pressed wood, draperies, and as a glue and adhesive component. Pressed wood products for indoor use include particleboard, used as subflooring, shelving, cabinetry, and other furniture; hardwood plywood paneling; and medium-density fiberboard, used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops. Medium-density fiberboard is generally recognized as the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed-wood product.

According to the EPA, formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in animals and may also cause cancer in humans. Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; and severe allergic reactions. It can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma.

Formaldehyde is just one example of a volatile organic compound (VOC). VOCs are gases emitted from certain solids and liquids. Many paints and finishes contain formaldehyde precursors, as well as many other VOCs and toxins, Pace notes.

According to the EPA, concentrations of many air pollutants and toxins are consistently higher indoors-up to ten times higher in some instances-than outdoors, and are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Besides paints, lacquers, and paint strippers, examples include cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics, pesticides, and cleaning supplies.

Some VOCs are regulated as to the legal concentration allowed, but "some manufacturers are getting smart," says Pace. "They are replacing regulated VOCs with unregulated VOCs and other toxins." Thus their products are not as "green" as they may appear on the label, somewhat similar to "fat-free" foods that claim to be more healthful but are loaded with sugar and artificial additives to make them taste good.

Just like formaldehyde, unregulated VOCs are also harmful to our health. The EPA states that effects can include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, difficulty in breathing, nosebleeds, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. How an individual is affected depends on various factors such as length and concentration of exposure and chemical sensitivity.

But as Pace notes, persons with chemical sensitivities are "the canaries in the coal mine for the rest of us."

What Does It Mean to Be Green?

When customers say they want "green," most of the time they don t know exactly what they are looking for, Pace says. "In the last few years, green has become a rather all-encompassing definition. There are actually about 35 different reasons why you can call a product green,' broken down into three main categories: (1) human health, (2) environmental health, and (3) sustainability" Pace asks customers, "What are you trying to achieve? Do you want to achieve a space that is as healthy as possible for the occupants? Are you trying to achieve a sustainable space with a very long lifespan or that is highly energy efficient? Are you trying to achieve a space with the lowest carbon footprint?" (Your carbon footprint is the sum of all emissions of CO 2 [carbon dioxide] induced by your activities in a given time frame, usually calculated for a year.) He then helps them choose materials that meet their goals. "You can never achieve the ultimate green project in every aspect. There's always a downside. For instance a material that is friendly for the outdoor environment may still be a health hazard to indoor occupants, and vice versa."

To establish consistency in what is "green," rating standards have been created. The gold standard in green is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which provides a suite of standards for environmentally sustainable construction ( www.usgbc.org ). According to Wikipedia, since its inception in 1998, LEED standards have been used in more than 14,000 projects in 50 states and 30 countries covering 1.062 billion square feet (99km) of development area. LEED is an open, transparent group in which the technical criteria proposed by the LEED committees are publicly reviewed for approval by the more than 10,000 membership organizations that currently constitute the USGBC.

However, the LEED system is geared more toward professionals such as architects, engineers, and designers, notes Pace. Using performance-based standards, the USGBC certifies building projects, not products, although individual products may contribute to rating points.

Seeing the need for a more accessible rating guide to green products for building contractors, retailers, and end-users, such as home and small business owners, Pace enlisted some experts and developed the Degree of Green™ system ( www.degreeofgreen.com ). A Degree of Green scorecard reviews each product by three criteria: health, sustainability, and environment, and assigns a value from 1 to 4. A score of 1 means the product has little or no green benefits compared to similar products in the selected category, and a 4 rating places a product in the top tier of green attributes in its category.

Plant a Garden-on Your Roof!

Innovative green ideas are burgeoning. One literally green innovation is the "green roof." Imagine taking your coffee break, stepping out from a stairwell onto your company's roof and strolling or relaxing amidst a lovely garden, perhaps plucking a strawberry or two. A green roof consists of vegetation planted in soil or another growing medium over a waterproofing membrane, and may include a root barrier and drainage and irrigation systems. Green roofs can be used in industrial facilities, offices, homes, and other applications. In Europe, they are widely used for storm-water and energy-saving potential as well as aesthetic benefits, the EPA notes. Green roofs are catching on in the United States also. Private and public interests in Chicago, Illinois, and Portland, Oregon, have installed or are planning to install more than 43 and 42 green roof projects, respectively. Green roofs grace the Atlanta, Georgia, City Hall, Gap headquarters in San Bruno, California, and Ford Motor Company's corporate headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, among others.

Although definitions of "sustainability" in an environmental context vary, the General Services Administration (GSA) provides helpful sustainable design principles, which include the ability to:

  • Optimize site potential.
  • Minimize non-renewable energy consumption.
  • Use environmentally preferable products.
  • Protect and conserve water.
  • Enhance indoor environmental quality.
  • Optimize operational and maintenance practices.

Cool Roof

Another innovation is the "cool roof?' which uses materials that have two important surface properties: a high solar reflectance (albedo) and a high thermal emittance, according to the EPA. Solar reflectance is the percentage of solar energy that is reflected by a surface. Thermal emittance is defined as the percentage of energy a material can radiate away after it is absorbed.

Cool roofs reflect heat well across the entire solar spectrum, especially in the infrared and visible wavelengths. The less solar radiation materials absorb, the cooler they are. In addition to absorbing less heat, the coolest roofing materials radiate away any absorbed heat.

'Green' Marketing

"Green" can generate positive publicity, and likely more patients, for your company-and it doesn't have to be the big things like a new LEED-certified building or using all "green" materials in a remodel, points out Elizabeth Mansfield, president of Outsource Marketing Solutions LLC, West Hartford, Connecticut ( www.askelizabeth.net ). "O&P companies tend to think of publicity only in terms of their cutting-edge prosthetic and orthotic technology or their philanthropic work. In my webinars and presentations, I try to help them think about other things they can publicize. Green is so hot right now that you can do anything green and post it on your website and send out a press release," Mansfield says. "For instance [a business owner could advertise], 'We've gone paperless and are saving six tons of paper a year.' Businesses may already being going green in many aspects and not even realize it." Mansfield pointed to the Sierra Club's "10 Ways to Go Green at Work" for ideas ( http://sierraclub.typepad.com .).

"Now [there] is a great opportunity for O&P facilities to ride that green bandwagon and publicize their company at the same time," Mansfield says. "A story doesn't have to be specifically about orthotics and prosthetics; they can take advantage of the fact [that] they're doing things to help the environment."

Cost of 'Green'

While "going green" may be appealing for business owners, many wonder about the price tag associated with implementing green into their workplaces. Especially in today's economy, business owners want to stay away from things that will increase their expenditures.

"Green buildings do not have to cost a penny more," says the U.S. Green Building Council. "LEED-certified projects to date demonstrate that you can achieve LEED certification and reap its many benefits with a common-sense approach to design with no additional dollars. Depending on your green building strategy and the level of certification your project is targeting, there may be mid- and long-term ROI [return on investment] associated with additional green features that merits an investment in first costs."

Davis Langdon, the US. branch of international construction management firm Davis Langdon Seah ( www.davislangdon.com ) agrees. In 2004, it published a study that examined the costs of going green. The company updated this study in 2006. In both studies, the LEED rating system was used as a parameter for determining the level of sustainable design.

"The 2006 study shows essentially the same results as 2004: there is no significant difference in average costs for green buildings as compared to non-green buildings," according to the company. "Many project teams are building green buildings with little or no added cost, and with budgets well within the cost range of non-green buildings with similar [parameters]. We have also found that, in many areas of the country, the contracting community has embraced sustainable design and no longer sees sustainable design requirements as additional burdens to be priced in their bids."

To paraphrase a well-known credit card commercial: "Helping the planet and protecting the health of patients and staff: Priceless!"

"It's not easy bein' green," lamented Kermit the Frog. But regarding O&P businesses, "green" is getting easier-and better-all the time.

Miki Fairley is a contributing editor for The O&P Edge and freelance writer based in southwest Colorado. She can be contacted via e-mail at .