New LEED Materials Credit Targets Phthalates, Flame Retardants

by Bill Walsh, Executive Director, Healthy Building Network
Nov 3, 2010 4:30 PM ET

Healthy Building News

 by Bill Walsh, Executive Director, Healthy Building Network

Today the US Green Building Council (USGBC) expanded the LEED Pilot Credit Library with a new LEED materials credit for "Chemical Avoidance In Building Materials." This credit along with an earlier credit for "PBT Source Reduction: Dioxins and Halogenated Organic Compounds" marks the beginning of a three step approach the USGBC is developing to address "chemicals of concern" in building materials. LEED project teams will play a critical role in the success of this process, which is likely to be aggressively resisted by the chemicals and plastics industries, and some product manufacturers.

The new pilot credit "acknowledges and supports contemporary and accepted knowledge about specific chemicals of concern that should be avoided,"1 and can be achieved by screening interior finish products to avoid the use of phthalates2 and halogenated flame retardants3. These chemicals, notes the USGBC, are listed both on Chemical Action Plans by the US EPA's Existing Chemicals Program, as well as California's list of Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity (also known as Proposition 65.)

Both classes of chemicals also have been subject to numerous regulatory actions, including bans and phase-outs of some formulas, in the US and internationally. HBN has been documenting the mounting evidence of significant health risks from phthalate exposure since 2002.4 In 2004 the Environmental Building News called for a ban on the most widely used flame retardant in the US. Pharos, our on-line materials evaluation system, always has allowed its users to screen products for phthalates and flame retardants. Thus, we can report with confidence that there are many building products that do qualify for this new credit.

The USGBC's action coincides with a scientists' consensus statement of concern on flame retardants that was also released today. Signed by 145 prominent scientists from 22 countries, and endorsed by the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the statement notes that: "Consumers can play a role in the adoption of alternatives to harmful flame retardants if they are made aware of the presence of the substances..."

The new LEED credit does not address all of the "chemicals of concern" identified by EPA that are widely used in building products, such as bisphenol A (BPA), a rarely disclosed ingredient in many epoxy-based products, or perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), widely used in stain repellants. These chemicals should come under scrutiny in the next step of the USGBC’s process, which it describes as a measure designed to address its "larger mission of advancing product transparency and alternatives assessment across the spectrum of industrial chemicals to support systemic redesign of building products for progressively better human and ecological health." This will be followed by an effort to work up the supply chain to help "customers and manufacturers better understand and reduce the overall life-cycle related impacts associated with green building product manufacturing." With this approach, says the USGBC, it "shows regard for leading edge knowledge and precautionary reason" and "helps manufacturers identify their greatest opportunities for improvement across the life-cycle of impacts that matter most to the USGBC mission."

The success of these important health-based credits depends upon active participation of LEED project teams in the pilot process. The USGBC is encouraging project teams to use BuildingGreen's LEEDuser to learn more about the Pilot Credits and participate in the pilot process.

The easiest way to obtain these credits, with just a few keystrokes, is by using the on-line Pharos Building Materials Library. Registered users can use filters to search the Pharos database for products that qualify for this new credit, as well as to avoid these chemicals in other products.

The nature of the LEED Pilot Credit program is interactive, providing LEED project teams with an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of this important program, combat greenwash, and drastically accelerate the pace of transformation in the green building materials market. Please sign up with LEEDuser and Pharos today in order to lend your initiative and experience to this effort.


[1] This and all subsequent quotations in this article can be found in Pilot Credit 11.

[2] Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are used to make materials more flexible and pliable. They are widely used in polyvinylchloride (known as PVC or vinyl) building materials such as flooring, wall covering, upholstery, and shower curtains. They are not bound to the plastic and are easily released to the indoor environment. Phthalates are a suspected endocrine disrupting chemical and have been linked to an increasing number of reproductive health impacts at low dose exposures, and exposure to building materials containing phthalates has been correlated with asthma and related allergy impacts.

[3] Halogenated flame retardants are one type chemical added to building materials to reduce flammability. They are persistent and bio-accumulative endocrine disrupting chemicals, and are associated with numerous health impacts including reproductive, thyroid, developmental and neurological disorders including decreased fertility, and birth defects.

[4] See:

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