For almost 20 years, the staff at Silent Spring Institute have watched the changing of the seasons from a small, cozy office on a busy road in Newton, Mass. In 2015, however, we found ourselves faced with a lucky dilemma: our growth was exceeding our available working space.
With a moving committee to steer the way and a host of supportive donors and friends, we have made the leap to a larger, better equipped, responsibly-designed office space, a half mile down the road. As anyone who has ever moved before will know, this happy experience came with a plethora of decisions to be made. From building materials and carpet tiles, to paint colors and furnishings, our moving committee—a small group of Silent Spring staffers—was charged with making sure that our needs were met at the intersection of health and sustainability.
“This was a great opportunity for us to practice what we preach by choosing office materials and furnishings that don’t contain harmful ingredients,” says Staff Scientist Kathryn Rodgers. “Because our research is dedicated to reducing people’s everyday exposure to toxic substances, this was at the front of our mind when making these decisions.”
Constructed in 1867, Silent Spring’s new home on Nevada Street was once the Silver Lake Cordage Co., an industrial operation that manufactured cord, rope, and trolley pulls. During the course o f a century, the building transitioned to produce packaging materials, and even spent some time fallow. Then, in the late 1980s, the 86,000 square-foot, brick and beam structure was restored to support office space.
The Institute’s extensive research on household exposures and consumer product chemicals led committee members to avoid—whenever possible—certain common substances such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause respiratory irritation, headaches, and nausea; as well as flame retardants, which have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, and developmental problems. The committee also chose to steer clear of vinyl (polyvinyl chloride or PVC), a type of plastic that emits hormone-disrupting phthalates, and dioxin, a known human carcinogen.
As a result, the carpeting that staff members traverse each day is adhered without VOC-emitting adhesives and the resilient flooring that lines our kitchen and lab space is made from non-toxic linoleum. Our walls are colored with low-VOC paints, each desk is paired with a flame-retardant-free desk chair, and we have non-vinyl chairs in our kitchen and conference rooms.
“We were thrilled to see that we had choices,” explained Cathy Cotton, director of development. “We expected to see little to none and be forced into a decision; but in truth, we had plenty.” Thanks in large part to Silent Spring’s research on chemicals in everyday products, combined with growing consumer pressure on companies to manufacturer safer alternatives, consumers today have more choices when purchasing furnishings and building materials—a trend that hopefully will continue to grow so that, whether it’s a work or at home, we can all breathe a little easier.