"LEED Standards Insufficient to Protect Human Health," Finds New Report

by Bill Walsh, Executive Director, Healthy Building Network
Jun 4, 2010 11:00 AM ET
Campaign: HBNews

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A new report released last week concludes, "[LEED] 'platinum,' 'gold,' and 'silver' status conveys the false impression of a healthy and safe building environment, even when well-recognized hazardous chemicals exist in building products," and, "LEED standards are insufficient to protect human health."

The report, entitled "LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides With Human Health," was published by Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), a non-profit organization composed of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts who specialize in research that examines environmental threats to human health. According to the lead author, John Wargo, Ph.D., Professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University, "Even the Council's most prestigious Platinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of the certified buildings."

Dr. Philip Landrigan, Chairman, Department of Preventive Medicine, at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, reviewed the report and called it "a lucid, well reasoned and balanced critique of the LEED certification process ... on the basis of carefully assembled scientific data." Dr. Mark Cullen, Chief of Internal Medicine at Stanford University Medical School, also reviewed the report and noted "the potential for green building technologies - even while they bring important energy benefits - to jeopardize the indoor air we breathe, the water we drink and the overall safety of our habitats," adding, "This is a timely lesson from a very sage group."

My colleagues in the Pharos Project have spent a good deal of time documenting the "collision between energy efficiency and human health" that is at the heart of the new report. These include mercury and other heavy metals in fly ash and other "coal combustion residuals" that reduce carbon footprints by displacing energy intensive ingredients in building products; carcinogens and endocrine disruptors in foam board; explosive chemicals that have killed applicators of sprayed polyurethane insulation; and formaldehyde emissions from some batt insulation products. But as both our Pharos research and the Wargo report make clear, most "well recognized" chemical threats from building products provide no energy efficiency benefits, and many could be avoided in green buildings.

LEED itself has demonstrated a greater potential to increase the use of healthier building materials, and transform markets in the process, than the Wargo report suggests. A decade ago, the LEED rating system began awarding a credit for use of composite wood products with no added urea formaldehyde, setting a high standard and sending a clear signal to the market. The credit helped catalyze market demand for a range of formaldehyde-free products, which led to an April 2007 decision by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopting the nation's most stringent regulations on formaldehyde emissions from particleboard and other composite wood products.

That, however, is one of the last times the USGBC took a leadership position to address "well-recognized" chemical threats from building materials, and its record since then leaves it vulnerable to the criticisms in the Wargo report. In March 2007, for example, despite a conclusion by a USGBC Technical Science Advisory Panel that the available data put PVC "consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts," the USGBC leadership rejected proposed credits that would have reduced the use of PVC products (also known as vinyl), and the membership was denied an opportunity to vote on them. That decision, writes Wargo, "demonstrates the influence industry has over the LEED decision-making process and, ultimately, the definition of 'green building.'"1

Wargo's report coincidently comes just one week after health care industry leaders vigorously objected to a pending USGBC staff proposal to remove materials credits from the draft LEED for Health Care that would address a range of chemical threats identified by Wargo - including the phthalates in flexible PVC, halogenated flame retardants and the perfluorocarbons in stain retardants. These credits would be consigned to an experimental Pilot Credit Library Program that still languishes "in development" a year and a half after it was supposedly launched. Again, the membership would not have the opportunity to vote on the original proposal.2

The Wargo report concludes with practical recommendations for reforming the LEED credit structure to be more protective of health. These should be embraced as LEED materials credits are revised. But for now, the record shows, the USGBC is not doing nearly enough with the tools at its disposal, in particular the visible support of its voting membership for healthier building standards.


[1] See, "LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides With Human Health." , p.34

[2] The Healthy Building Network advocated for proposed LEED credits that would have reduced PVC use in green buildings, and filed comments in opposition to proposal to transfer credits from LEED for Health Care to the Pilot Credit Library. HBN's Policy Director Tom Lent is a member of the LEED for Health Care Steering Committee. 

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