Mind & Matter


Controversial Chemicals and Disaster-Preventative Design

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A microscopic image of rat prostate cells exposed to BPA. Photo: The New York Times.

A recent story in The New York Times, “In Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer,” explores the controversy surrounding a ubiquitous chemical and the challenges associated with its environmental assessment. Used in common consumer products such as water bottles and food containers, bisphenol-A has been named an “endocrine disruptor” due to confirmed lab tests demonstrating its simulation of human hormones. Despite public criticism of the chemical and its potential negative effects, however, scientists remain in heated debate over the extent of BPA’s influence to human health.

BPA is not alone. PVC is another common and much maligned chemical for which science has failed to deliver a clear and concerted analysis resulting in a transformation of industry. Unfortunately for American citizens, the U.S. takes an “innocent until proven guilty” approach to these chemicals, as opposed to the precautionary principle adopted by the European Union that requires testing of suspicious substances before they are brought to market.

Architects and designers may seek to fill the knowledge void between materials and their users. As Thomas Fisher writes, architects should seek to emulate and engage in preventative endeavors promoted by public health. In a Design Observer article, Fisher states that “Public-health professionals do more than respond to disasters. In contrast to medicine, which, like design, tends to react to the problems that others present, public health puts much more emphasis on prevention, on changing the conditions that lead to problems in the first place. A public health version of architecture could do the same, identifying those places most in need of immediate attention, where intervention now would prevent the greatest expense and largest loss of life in the future.”

While researchers and politicians argue over the future of uncertain chemicals, architects and designers should play a more active role in their responsible and methodical assessment—particularly since we are accountable for specifying these materials in the process of designing building and products.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.