Understanding Environmental and Health Product Labels for Natural Stone
The Importance of Material Transparency
Natural stone has a great reputation for environmentally friendly qualities such as its durability, low embodied energy, no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and being a nearly complete material in its natural state. Mother Nature does most of the work, making natural stone a single ingredient material suitable for many interior and exterior applications that perform impeccably over time. Most other building materials require additional ingredients and a more complex manufacturing process. Because these added materials and processes can have a negative impact on our health and the environment, they should be considered when selecting a material for a project.
The different manufacturing processes and impacts of building materials are being documented in product labels including Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs). These labels are intended to demonstrate that the health and environmental claims are transparent, accurate, and meet defined standards. These labels can then be used to select and specify building products like natural stone to ensure the well-being of a project’s occupants and the planet.
Natural stone flooring options are limitless and can also support a healthy interior environment.
“Natural” and “environmentally sustainable” do not mean the same thing. These product labels are significant for the stone industry. They provide independent data to show how using natural stone in projects can support lower embodied carbon goals, providing specifiers with the information needed to make more effective material decisions. These labels also reinforce the important work the natural stone industry has been doing for many years to improve the processes of quarrying, fabricating, transporting, and installing natural stone, which are assessed through the Natural Stone Sustainability Standard.
Impacts during the life cyle of natural stone including raw material acquisition, transportation, manufacturing, use, and end of life are documented in EPDs and HPDs
EPDs and HPDs for Natural Stone Explained
EPDs and HPDs were developed in response to the growing green building movement and requirements that a product’s life cycle impacts are defined and transparent. Just like nutrition labels make it easy to compare ingredients, calories, preservatives, and other information about food products, EPDs and HPDs simplify the process of comparing building materials. The labels themselves do not necessarily tell you if a product is more environmentally friendly than another on their own—rather, they allow you to compare materials using the information provided in the labels to get a more complete understanding of their sustainability claims. To understand this better, let’s discuss these labels in more detail and consider how to use them in your next building or remodeling project.
An EPD is a registered document that quantifies environmental information on the life cycle of a product to enable comparisons between products fulfilling the same function. EPDs define the environmental impacts throughout the product’s life cycle. Impacts that are recorded and provided in an EPD include: a product’s global warming potential, eutrophication, acidification, ozone layer depletion, whether the product contains carcinogens, and many others. An EPD may be used for many different applications, including green building design. For example, within LEED, BREEAM, and other green building rating systems, EPDs are used to encourage the purchasing of low carbon products with life-cycle information. Industry-wide natural stone EPDs are available for cladding, flooring/paving, and countertops, making it possible to meet health and environmental goals for any type of project with ease. The natural stone EPDs consider impacts that occur during the quarrying, fabrication, installation, care and maintenance, and disposal of the stone.
Natural stone countertops can play an important role in the health and well-being of an interior and its occupants.
HPDs offer greater transparency of material ingredients and their potential human health impacts. HPDs provide a full disclosure of the potential chemicals of concern in products by comparing product ingredients to a wide variety of “hazard” lists published by government authorities and scientific associations. The HPD should provide 100% disclosure of known ingredients and/or 100% disclosure of known hazards down to 1,000 ppm. All versions of the HPD are recognized within LEED v4 Material Ingredient credits. Within the LEED v4.1 Materials and Resources credit: Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Material Ingredients, HPDs can also contribute to earning points. Through a special exception for geological materials, HPDs representing dimension stone materials worldwide were developed by the Natural Stone Institute. The HPDs are for common natural stone types used in the dimension stone industry including granite, limestone, marble, quartzite, onyx, sandstone, slate, travertine, and more. There are now 13 HPDs for natural stone that can be found in 15 different MasterFormat classifications, a trusted source for designers. Companies and design teams throughout the industry can take advantage of these industry-wide disclosures.
Stacks and slabs of natural stone ready for use as paving, flooring, or countertops.
Natural Stone Versus Other Materials*
Let’s compare natural stone to a few other building materials to understand how stone stacks up within these product labels. For example, natural stone countertops were determined to have a global warming potential (GWP) of 46.8kg of CO2e/m2 (weight of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted per square meter) versus engineered quartz, which has a GWP of 102.6kg of CO2e/m2. The EPD demonstrates that natural stone can result in a 54% reduction of embodied carbon.
If you are considering natural stone for the exterior of a project, knowing that its GWP is only 21.4kg of CO2e/m2, versus precast concrete cladding which has a GWP of 62.3kg of CO2e/m2, makes the decision much easier. Choosing natural stone means that your project can have up to 66% less of an impact on the Earth.
While terrazzo is a popular flooring material, it has been shown to have a GWP of 82.2kg of CO2e/m2 versus natural stone which has only 22kg of CO2e/m2. Using natural stone for this same application can support a 37% embodied carbon reduction.
The HPD for marble demonstrates that only marble is present in the material. If you compare that to an HPD for a wood laminate, there are additional ingredients present such as phenol formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin. Exposure to these products is known to irritate the skin, throat, lungs, and eyes. Repeated exposure to formaldehyde can possibly lead to cancer.
Sample HPD material content summary for marble and a wood laminate product.
How to Use EPDs and HPDs
To begin, make it a priority to select materials that will have a measurable positive difference on your health and the environment such as natural stone. Explore the EPD and HPD labels and familiarize yourself with the terms to effectively make comparisons across different materials. Spend time discussing the various material impacts and options with your designer, material supplier, and installer to optimize the features of the material while also ensuring its long-term use and care. Knowing that you have chosen an environmentally sustainable material will keep you and the planet healthy while also contributing to your peace of mind.
Natural stone has been used throughout history in iconic structures that symbolize beauty, strength, durability, and permanence. Other materials may strive to mimic these characteristics, but genuine natural materials connect us with the planet and its future in a unique and undeniable way. EPDs and HPDs will only serve to further the thoughtful use of natural stone in environmentally friendly, low carbon building designs for many years to come.
To find EPD and HPD labels for natural stone, visit the Sustainable Minds Transparency Catalog.
For more information on Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations see:
*NOTE: The embodied carbon quantities displayed were estimated based on the following:
Functional Unit: 1m2
Scope: Raw Material Extraction, Transportation, Manufacturing (A1-A3)
Natural Stone: Industry-Wide EPDs
Pre-Cast Concrete Cladding: Industry-Wide EPD, 150 lbs per ft3, 4” thick
Engineered Quartz: Average of three individual manufacturer EPDs
Terrazzo: Average of three individual manufacturer EPDs