Dear EarthTalk: I need to get my roof replaced as a result of storm damage (thanks global warming!). Is Tesla’s solar roof a good deal and do other companies offer similar products — with the photovoltaic cells integrated into the roofing material? — Kenny S., Vero Beach, FL
It would be a stretch to call Tesla’s new Solar Roof a “good deal” given that it costs more than just about any other rooftop solar option, but there are some scenarios where it might make sense anyway. For instance, some housing developments or homeowners’ associations don’t allow traditional photovoltaic panels to muck up roof sightlines for aesthetic or other reasons, so solar collectors integrated into a traditional looking roof may be worth the extra expense.
According to EnergySage, a solar information clearinghouse and matchmaker for 500-plus pre-screened solar installers, replacing a roof on a 3,000-square-foot home in Southern California with another regular roof and then adding photovoltaic panels on top would run around $34,000 in gross costs all told ($8,000 for a new asphalt or slate roof and $26,000 for the photovoltaic equipment and installation). Of course, some solar installers will lease the panels to you, so you would just pay a smaller monthly fee akin to your old electricity bill.
Meanwhile, gross costs for putting in a full Tesla Solar Roof top out over $50,000, a 33 percent price premium for the sleeker look and added cool factor. But given all the turbulence in the solar industry in recent years, Tesla customers are also happy to pay a premium for the peace of mind of knowing they are dealing with a company that won’t be going out of business anytime soon. Tesla is already the dominant force in the sector given its 2016 acquisition of leading residential solar installer SolarCity and vertical integration with electric cars and lithium-ion battery arrays. They also have pretty deep pockets: Tesla went public in 2010 and has been a darling of tech investors ever since. The first Tesla Solar Roofs have already started going up in California, with a roll out to other states planned by the end of 2018.
But Tesla is far from the only game in town when it comes to so-called “building integrated” photovoltaics (BIPV). Forward Labs, a venture capital backed Silicon Valley start-up, has started installing its own integrated solar roofing systems around the San Francisco Bay Area and plans to expand beyond California in 2019. Unlike Tesla’s tiled roof design, Forward Labs’ “single-surface” look — more akin in style to a metal roof — features layers of solar cells and tempered glass that can take on any color the customer chooses. The start-up claims its solar roofing technology can produce almost double the energy output of Tesla’s tiles while costing 33 percent less. While we know less about the technical details, the Japanese company Solar Frontier plans to roll out its own solar roof technology across Japan in 2019.
Yet, with all the hype about solar roofs, we can’t forget about the technology’s forebear, solar shingles. While not technically integrated into the roof, solar shingles lay flat on existing roofing, keeping a low-profile and requiring less installation time than traditional photovoltaic panels or fully-integrated solar roofs. RGS Energy’s PowerHouse and CertainTeed’s Apollo have been around since 2011 and can achieve efficiencies similar to traditional photovoltaic panels at a price point far below fully integrated solar roofing.
Dear EarthTalk: Just when I finally purged my kitchen of non-stick cookware due to the risks posed by Teflon, I now learn that my rain jacket and waterproof boots are also putting my health at risk from exposure to similar “hydrophobic” chemicals. What’s a concerned outdoors person to do about staying dry and comfortable on a rainy hike? — Alex Walker, Philadelphia, PA
Most of us remember when GORE-Tex first appeared and revolutionized outdoor clothing and gear by infusing products with a waterproof treatment that could also “breathe” so we wouldn’t get clammy on the inside as our outerwear repelled the elements. Since then, this synthetic chemical-based weatherproofing has become ubiquitous throughout the outdoor industry, not only in jackets, but also in boots and shoes, backpacks, tents, swimsuits and just about everything else that gets exposed to the wet and wild.
And while we’ve all been happily making our way through the rain and snow, we might not have realized that there is a dark underbelly to all of this weatherproof outdoor gear: perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). These synthetic chemicals are related to the “hydrophobic” PFOA formulations that make non-stick cookware easy to clean by encouraging liquids to bead up and roll away. And like their chemical cousins on cookware, the PFCs in your jacket could be making you sick and polluting the environment.
“PFCs are environmentally hazardous substances, which are persistent in the environment,” reports Greenpeace, which launched its Detox Outdoor campaign in 2012 to convince outdoor gear makers to stop using toxic chemicals in their products. “Studies show that some PFCs can accumulate in living organisms such as the livers of polar bears in the Arctic and are also detected in human blood.” Meanwhile, animal studies indicate that PFCs can harm reproductive processes, negatively impact hormonal balances and promote the growth of tumors.
Once released into the environment PFCs break down very slowly. They remain in the environment for several hundred years and are dispersed over the entire globe. Some are found in secluded mountain lakes or accumulated in wildlife. Some are also found in human blood.
If you have waterproof shoes or a rain jacket that is more than a year or two old, chances are it was treated with a PFC-laced Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish before it left the factory — and could be leaching trace amounts of these toxic carcinogenic chemicals into your body and the environment. And PFCs never break down entirely, so they can continue to cause harm indefinitely.
Luckily, given Greenpeace’s advocacy and resulting consumer awareness, the majority of gear makers have started to phase out PFCs. Smaller brands including Paramo, Pyua, Rotauf, Fjällräven, R’ADYS and Dannah were the first to commit to PFC-free product lines, but the bigger players are coming around, too. W.L. Gore, Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot, Columbia and others have voluntarily committed to phasing out PFC-based DWR formulations by 2020 per Greenpeace’s original ask.
But getting there depends on finding suitable alternatives. Many companies have temporarily switched to less toxic while still fluorocarbon-based DWR formulations while they look for greener formulations. For its part, Patagonia is betting big through its corporate investment fund Tin Shed Ventures on Switzerland-based start-up Beyond Surface Technologies, a company founded in 2008 by scientists who left careers at big chemical companies to make DWR-like textile treatments using natural raw materials.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m in the market for a new mattress after two decades on “old faithful” and I figure it’s a good time to go green. What are the options out there these days for eco-friendly mattresses? — Betsy Langdon, Chicago, IL
Who would have thought that the comfy mattress you’ve been sleeping on for years contains dozens of potentially harmful substances and materials, from petrochemicals to adhesives to dyes to flame retardants, among other toxins and carcinogens. Luckily for green-minded consumers, though, there’s never been a better time to find a truly “green” mattress.
“Green technology and innovation have impacted a wide range of industries in recent years…and this growing demand has led many mattress manufacturers to offer sustainable products as well,” reports Tuck, a website dedicated to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free resources. “However, terms like ‘green,’ ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are often misused or exaggerated within the mattress industry.” Further complicating matters, there is no regulatory body fact-checking green claims within the mattress industry, although certifications are available for certain mattress materials like foam, latex, and fabrics.
So, what’s a green-minded, health-conscious mattress shopper to do? First and foremost, know what to look for. According to Tuck, a true green mattress features natural and/or organic materials (natural latex, plant-based polyfoam or memory foam, cotton, wool, etc.). Tuck says that any mattress that contains less than 60 percent natural or organic material has no right to market itself as “green.”
There is no overall certification for green mattresses overall per se, but there are certifications that apply to certain types of mattresses and their materials. To wit, if a mattress meets the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), at least 95 percent of its materials are certified organic, while certain noxious chemicals (chemical flame retardants, polyurethane) can’t be present at all. Meanwhile, the Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) certifies that a latex mattress is made from 95 percent organic latex, with similarly stringent restrictions on what can be in the remaining five percent of the mattress.
Another certification to look for is OEKO-TEX, which sets limits on how much a given mattress can off-gas potentially harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and other so-called volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) linked to respiratory illness, memory impairment and other human health issues.
Foam mattress buyers should keep an eye out for the CertiPUR-US label, which certifies polyfoams and memory foams as made without ozone depleters, chemical flame retardants, heavy metals, formaldehyde and phthalates–and emit little if any volatile organic compounds that can compromise indoor air quality.
Some of the leading green mattress brands out there, as vetted by Tuck and other experts, include Avocado, Bear, Essentia, Happsy, Keetsa, Live & Sleep, LifeKind/OMI, Loom & Leaf, Luxi, My Green Mattress, Naturepedic, Nest Bedding, Organic Mattresses, Plushbeds, Saatva, Sleep On Latex, Soaring Heart, Spindle, Tuft & Needle and Zenhaven.
To learn more, peruse Tuck.com. The freely accessible database contains information on 125,000 different customer experiences from nearly 1,000 individual sources.
Dear EarthTalk: I recently read about the toxic dangers of particle board. I still am using the same laminate on particle board bedroom furniture that I bought new 30 years ago. Do you think it’s still harmful to my health after all this time, and is there any way to make it less unhealthy? — Jane Woodard, via e-mail
Sadly, much of the furniture we enjoy every day is “off-gassing” toxins into the air, especially if it’s made out of particle board, which traditionally relies on formaldehyde — a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical and known respiratory irritant and carcinogen — to bond the wood chips and other filler together. If you’ve had the furniture for many years, the good news is that most or all of the formaldehyde fumes have long off-gassed out. Of course, the bad news is that you’ve likely been breathing it in for years.
“New particleboard presents the biggest health concern, making installation of new materials the most dangerous,” reports DoItYourself.com. “As the material ages, any formaldehyde gas emissions are reduced, but cutting it can release toxic dust into the air.”
Formaldehyde isn’t something to mess with. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), its exposure can make you sick, with symptoms including sore throat, cough, scratchy eyes and nosebleeds. And it’s been linked to an increased risk of allergies and asthma in children.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) adds that “chronic exposure to formaldehyde may also cause general damage to the central nervous system, such as increased prevalence of headache, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and impairment of dexterity, memory and equilibrium.”
Furthermore, the American Cancer Society reports that exposure to formaldehyde — classified by the federal government as a “known human carcinogen” since 2011 — has caused cancer in laboratory test animals, and that humans exposed to relatively high amounts of formaldehyde in medical and occupational settings are at greater risk for cancers of the nose and throat, among others.
“Scientific research has not yet shown that a certain level of formaldehyde exposure causes cancer,” reports CDC. “However, the higher the level and the longer the exposure, the greater the chance of getting cancer.” CDC researchers also worry that exposure to formaldehyde “might increase the chance of getting cancer even at levels too low to cause symptoms.”
One precaution is to apply sealant designed to lock in potentially harmful fumes (AFM Safecoat’s Safe Seal is one). Or to just make the problem go away, maybe it’s time for new, greener furniture anyway. Avoid the formaldehyde trap and look for products made out of solid wood, no resin required.
Keep an eye out for products made with sustainable alternatives to particle board, like Uniboard’s woodchip-based NU Green Zero, Environ’s newsprint and soy waste Biocomposite, and Pfleiderer’s renewable wheat straw PrimeBoard. These greener choices are bound with a polyurethane base free of formaldehyde and are popping up increasingly in the Targets and Walmarts of the world for those willing to read labels and ask questions in the quest to find the greenest versions of what’s available.
Contacts: Safe Seal, goo.gl/2oWodG; CDC’s “What You Should Know About Formaldehyde,” www.cdc.gov/nceh/drywall/docs/whatyoushouldknowaboutformaldehyde.pdf; Uniboard, www.uniboard.com; PrimeBoard, www.pfleiderer.com/row/PrimeBoard/PrimeBoard.