Does living or working in a LEED certified space mean that you are safe from building contaminants – or does it promote a false sense of security?
A study published by the nonprofit, Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), in May 2010, emphatically claims that you are not safe. The lead author of the study, Dr. John Wargo, is professor of environmental policy, risk analysis and political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He is also an advisor to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study outlined why LEED, which has emerged as the green standard of approval for new buildings in the United States, largely ignores factors relating to human health, particularly the use of potentially toxic building materials. As Nancy Alderman, the president of EHHI, told BuildingGreen.com, “it is possible to build a LEED building and have it not be healthy inside, and we’re saying this needs to be fixed.”
Many of the chemical ingredients in building materials are well known to be hazardous to human health. Some are respiratory stressors, neurotoxins, hormone mimics, carcinogens, reproductive hazards, or developmental toxins. Thousands of synthetic and natural chemicals make up modern buildings, and many materials and products “off-gas” and can be inhaled by occupants. Dr. Wargo points out in a blog posting on Environment 360, that one of LEED’s major accomplishments — saving energy by making buildings more airtight — has had the paradoxical effect of more effectively trapping the gases emitted by these often toxic chemicals used in today’s building materials and furnishings.
He makes the case that LEED puts almost no weight on human health factors in deciding whether a building meets its environmental and social goals. And he calls for a comprehensive Federal law to control the chemical content of the built environment.
Many sectors of the economy, including pharmaceuticals and pesticides, are highly regulated by the federal government to protect public health. But the building sector — which now produces $1.25 trillion in annual revenues, roughly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 2009 — has escaped such federal control. The lack of government regulation is explained, in part, by the building industry’s enormous financial power, but also by its recent success in creating green building and development standards that give the impression of environmental responsibility and protection of human health.
John Wargo called for a new national healthy building policy, which would include:
- New chemicals tested to understand their threat to human health before they are allowed to be sold. We should adopt the precautionary principle, as in the EU. Existing chemicals should also be tested, rather than be exempted, as they are currently under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
- The burden of proof of safety should rest with chemical and building product manufacturers. The testing itself should be conducted by an independent, government-supervised institute, but paid for by the manufacturers.
- A clear environmental safety standard should also be adopted to prevent further development and sale of persistent and bio-accumulating compounds.
- The chemical contents of building materials and their country of origin should be identified.
- EPA should maintain a national registry of the chemical content of building products, furnishings, and cleaning products.
- The government should categorize building products to identify those that contain hazardous compounds; those that have been tested and found to be safe; and those that have been insufficiently tested making a determination of hazard or safety impossible. This database should be freely available on the Internet.
- Distinctive “high performance” environmental health standards should be adopted to guide the construction and renovation of schools and surrounding lands.
- The federal government should create incentives for companies to research and create new chemicals that meet the health, safety, and environmental standards described above. Funding for “green chemistry” initiatives should be significantly increased and focused on benign substitutes for the most widely used and well-recognized toxic substances.
- The federal government should take responsibility for codifying these requirements to protect human health in buildings and communities.
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) developed LEED parameters through a “consensus based” process led by LEED committees, and introduced the LEED rating system in 2000. The USGBC does extraordinary and essential work – and as Howard Williams suggests in a comment on Environment 360, “wanting to add healthy building products onto that effective and successful machine is natural; we always ask more of the high achievers”. He goes on to suggest that “a clear and supportive endorsement from the USGBC of the need to protect people from the effect of hazardous chemicals in building materials would set in motion the free market forces for accelerating change. Although this is implicitly evident by the very nature of the USGBC work, some things just need to be explicit.”
However, at the time of the publication of the study in 2010, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) took exception with the conclusions that were drawn. Brendan Owens, P.E., vice president for LEED technical development at USGBC, criticized the report for “singling out the Indoor Environmental Quality section as the only place that LEED deals with public health.” Arguing that all LEED credits are built and evaluated for multiple environmental and health benefits, Owens said, “the report’s authors would have benefited from a better understanding of the philosophy that underpins the rating system.”
There is an ongoing and emotional debate about LEED, in which it has been criticized by other environmental groups such as the Healthy Building Network, for lacking leadership in addressing chemical hazards. Indeed, the Living Building Challenge may have been introduced as a result of LEED moving too slowly in many areas.
On the one side, the argument is that LEED is an action plan for environmental work through buildings and neighborhoods. It is not a report or even a statement of a perfect world. It is a way to define what green means. LEED, according to these proponents, is constantly updating and moving the market, pushing it and incentivizing it to be better. And they say that LEED’s explicit purpose has never been human health. It has always been about minimizing resource use and carbon footprint. To announce that it “fails” to account for human health is like making the exposé that ballet is not satisfying the tastes of hip hop dancers.
On the other hand, there are those who say that though LEED should be applauded for the things it does well (new energy efficiency standards, building siting standards, water conservation for example), it should also define a “green” building, and this definition should include minimizing the use of known carcinogens, suspected endocrine disruptors, and other harmful chemicals. It should do this because it is not just the health of the building’s inhabitants that is at stake. Throughout their life from cradle to grave, chemicals of concern in building products effect people, plants and animals–the whole environment.
Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network, told BuildingGreen.com that in his experience, the tone of the report represents a typical response to LEED from people in the human health community. For example, the Green Guide for Healthcare asks that we “Imagine: Cancer treatment centers built without materials linked to cancer; Pediatric clinics free of chemicals that trigger asthma.”  “Their first encounter with LEED is usually highly negative—they react just like this,” he said. “People just can’t believe that you get credit for using all manner of vile material in a green building. So no, they’re not really stepping back to assess the whole thing.” Walsh added that he hoped USGBC would use the report as an opportunity to build a broader constituency for developing its materials credits.
A pivotal issue is that there needs to be regulatory standards for the toxicity of building materials, because there cannot be a truly “green” building which compromises people’s health. A comment posted on the Environment 360 web site suggests a new twist: Perhaps LEED could have DEMERITS as well as credits. This is based on the commentor’s knowledge of a LEED project in which the project removed toxic soil from a site and sent it to a landfill in someone else’s backyard. He asks the question: “Can a LEED gold project actually send toxic soil that could be stored onsite to a location in another state? That doesn’t seem like a fully credible environmental leadership to me.”