Toxicity and Health

Marilyn BlackIf you’re sick of housework or your job makes you crazy, it might be something in the air. So learned Marilyn Black M’71, who studied why office workers were mysteriously becoming sick in the 1980s. Her research at the Georgia Institute of Technology revealed what is now more widely known: cleaning, insulation, and filtration materials give off emissions that contribute to headaches, nausea, and pain – the symptoms of “sick building syndrome.”

Environmentally-friendly buildings are increasingly common throughout the U.S. Among the many standards for “green” buildings is GREENGUARD, which Black spearheaded after more than 20 years consulting on human-safe products. “There are more than 40,000 products in the marketplace now that are GREENGUARD certified,” she says. GREENGUARD’s parent company was Air Quality Sciences, which Black started in 1989 to provide manufacturers scientific guidance on product safety. In 2001, Black switched to the nonprofit sector and founded the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute to set standards for acceptable chemical emissions and establish a public registry of products that meet those standards.

Black credits her entrepreneurial success in part to the mentorship of UF Professor Jim Winefordner, a highly regarded analytical chemist (who also mentored Gene Inman PhD’82 and Nancy Crews ’70). “Winefordner let you have your own space and apply your research and education to match up with your passion,” she says. Culminating her efforts to reduce people’s exposure to toxic chemicals in artificial environments, Black and her team developed environmental chamber technology: stainless steel containment devices to study chemical emissions’ effects vis-à-vis factors in building maintenance, such as temperature and humidity. The technology is the basis for GREENGUARD.

After years of studying the exposure effects of lead, acid rain, and Agent Orange, among others, Black now works as a senior advisor for Underwriters Laboratory, an organization devoted to safety science in countries around the world. She has also launched the Khaos Foundation to enable the wellbeing of children and protection from environmental threats. “It’s fulfilling to see that a lot of what I’ve done is applied to make safer environments for my four children and others’,” she says.