LEED and human health

16 03 2012

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.” [3] “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.” [4]





Renewable?

23 11 2010

We keep seeing the term “renewable”  in the media   –   a lot  –  and especially with reference to products made from “renewable resources”.  And we understand why this term can be so appealing in this time of diminishing natural resources and increasing population growth.  But what do they really mean?  Stick with us and you’ll find that this is yet another area in which a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

A “renewable resource” is a resource that can be replenished naturally  in the same amount of time (or less) than it takes to draw the supply down.  These constantly replenishing natural resources  include forest resources,  and the fertility of agricultural land.  Some renewable resources have essentially an endless supply, such as solar energy, wind energy and geothermal pressure.   Some resources are considered renewable, even though some effort must go into procuring them, such as fisheries or food crops.

To help us make better choices, there is now a differentiation between non-renewable resources, such as petroleum or old-growth timber  (which takes centuries to renew)  and what is known as “rapidly renewable resources”.  These items, as defined by the LEED system of building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) offers points for rapidly renewable materials that regenerate in 10 years or less, such as bamboo, wool, and straw. To qualify for the credit in a new construction project, the value of these materials must represent at least 2.5 % of the total cost of the products used in the building.

Renewable resources have become a focal point of the environmental movement, both politically and economically. Energy obtained from renewable resources puts much less strain on our limited supply of fossil fuels (non-renewable resources). The problem with using renewable resources on a large scale, however, is that it  may create some new and unforeseen problems.

What can some of these new and unforeseen problems be?  Like all green claims, it’s terribly important to understand the wider implications of each of our choices.  Take bamboo, for example.  Bamboo is a fast growing grass which is hard enough to be used as a replacement for wood in applications such as flooring and furniture. However, most bamboo is grown and processed in China, so while ocean shipping consumes less fuel per mile than overland trucking, the type of fuel used in shipping can be more polluting. In addition, there are concerns about forestry practices, the toxicity of binders, and worker safety.  A few bamboo plantations have earned certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which accredits forests managed “to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural, and spiritual needs of present and future generations.” However, certified bamboo products are still not widely available in the U.S. And even though bamboo plantations sequester as much carbon as native forests, they do not support the same wildlife.  Clearly, the environmental balance is more difficult to calculate than by simply examining the length of a harvest cycle.

Another product worth examining is cork, which comes from the bark of cork oaks. Unlike nearly every other tree species, cork trees are  not harmed by removal of their bark. A mature tree is stripped about once every 10 years and lives for an average of 16 strippings. After stripping, the large slabs of bark are boiled, and bottle stoppers are punched from them. The leftover material is then ground up, pressed into sheets, and cut into tiles for flooring. This dual-purpose production is critical to the cork industry.   According to the World Wildlife Fund International, cork production provides a vital source of income for thousands of people and supports one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity among forest habitats, with plant diversity reaching as high as 135 species per square meter. In an ironic twist, the increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak, leading the areas in which cork is grown to be converted or abandoned. It also may contribute to the end of the cork ecosystem.

The World Wildlife Fund International and the Forest Stewardship Council have established programs to promote and encourage responsible cork use to save this natural resource. For more information, visit www.panda.org and www.fsc.org.

Another not so easy call, is it?

In my opinion, another area worth investigating is the very visible promotion of biobased products using corn and soybeans  (soy based foam in upholstery and biobased polymers are two products that come immediately to mind) as being environmentally preferable because they’re based on a renewable resource.  Dow Cargill, manufacturer of BiOH polyols, the soybean derived biopolymer, says that it creates products with from 5 to 20% renewable content (meaning the soybeans). But soybeans are one of the three crops globally which have the highest percentage of GMO (corn and cotton being the other two).   The GMO percentage of global soybean production was 77%  in 2009, and for cotton it was 49%.  (In India, 87% of all cotton was GMO in 2009.)

Monsanto, the largest seed producer in the world, with a massive 20% share of the world market, has been  interested in a technology which was named “Terminator” – and began applying it to their seeds.

The Terminator idea was to genetically modify seeds so that the plants they produced when they grew were sterile. In biotechnology jargon, this is known as a “genetic use restriction technology”, or GURT.  Companies such as Monsanto were keen on such “suicide seeds” because they would enable the company to control any proprietary genetic traits they had engineered into the seeds. So resistance to a particular herbicide, for example, or an ability to grow faster, would not be passed on from one generation of plants to the next.

So most GMO seeds have a genetic modification that prevents the crops from setting fertile seed.  So seeds for next year’s crop must be purchased – effectively ending the centuries old practice of collecting seeds at each harvest  so they could be replanted next year.

The main problem with this is that over 1.4 billion people around the world depend on saved seeds from season to season to grow crops. Terminator seeds force dependence on the Monsantos of the world, destroying local and indigenous seed exchange practices, as well as the breeding and selection done by farmers.

There was a great outcry against this technology.

“While seeds with the ability to reproduce contain the essence of life, Terminator represents only ‘exploitation and death,’” according to Terry Boehm, vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union in Saskatchewan, Canada. Boehm further uses nuclear weapons as a parallel to Terminator technology: “Extensive testing of nuclear weapons did not change the fact that this was such a dangerous technology that it should not be used.”

At the  United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan (18-29 October 2010) the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) warned that there are a  handful of multinational corporations which are pressuring governments to allow what could become the broadest and most dangerous patent claims in history.

“The Gene Giants are stockpiling patents that threaten to put a choke-hold on the world’s biomass and our future food supply,” warns Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group. “The breadth of many patent claims on climate ready crop genes is staggering. In many cases, a single patent or patent application claims ownership of engineered gene sequences that could be deployed in virtually all major crops – as well as the processed food and feed products derived from them,” explains Ribeiro.

Hope Shand, research director of ETC,  links the argument over Terminator technologies with wider criticisms of the ways in which agribusiness is exercising its increasingly powerful influence. “The top 10 seed companies control 57% of the commercial seed market worldwide. That’s a staggering level of corporate control over the first link in the food chain,” she says.

“Whoever controls our seeds, controls the food supply. These companies are trying to reduce competition and maximize profits by promoting laws and technologies that eliminate the practice of farmer-saved seeds. Whether it’s promoting genetic seed sterilization and patent laws, or dictating trade regimes, these trends threaten traditional farming communities and erode crop diversity.”

The ETC web site goes on to say that “the natural genetic diversity of crops is a vital insurance against future farming catastrophes. The world needs to retain as many different varieties of potato, tomato, rice and wheat as possible in case the commercial varieties grown in bulk get diseased, or are rendered useless by the accelerating impacts of global warming. That’s why there are some 1,400 “seed banks” around the world, storing some six million different species.”  For more information on this issue, see the ETC Group’s report, Gene Giants Stockpile Patents on “Climate-Ready” Crops in Bid to Become Biomassters”

I think the use of GMO crops to produce soy based foam and biobased polymers cannot be marketed as being made from a renewable resource because of the presence of these patented GMO crops – which are largely sterile. They cannot be renewed without human input – in other words, new crops cannot be grown unless the farmer purchases new seed from the corporation.  And the danger is that these genetic mutations will spread to non GMO crops.

This goes entirely against the intent  in defining a renewable resource.  These crops cannot be “created again”.  So to say that soy based polyols (or soy based foam) is made from a “renewable resource” is false.

Another objection I have to GMOs as they are being implemented is that the basic motivation for almost every introduction thus far is profit-driven rather than need-driven – but that’s nit picking.

For more information on Terminator Technology visit:

www.banterminator.org – the Ban Terminator Campaign

www.etcgroup.org – Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration

• Also see www.seedsofchangefilm.org for information on the film, “Seeds of Change,” which looks at genetically modified crops and how they are changing the face of agriculture in western Canada. This film was made back in 2002 but hidden from the public by the administration at the University of Manitoba until 2005. Click here for a review of this documentary.





What kind of wood is best for your new “green” sofa?

13 01 2010

From last week’s post, I explained that most people who want to buy a “green” sofa look at two major components:  the wood and the foam.  But our blog post demonstrated how your fabric choice can trump the embodied energy of both these components – in other words, depending on which fiber you choose, fabric can be almost  triple  the embodied energy of wood and foam combined.  But embodied energy is a complicated concept,  and difficult to figure out without lots of time on your hands.  Our next steps will be to examine other issues associated with each of these choices – remember the ecosystem is a vast interconnected network, and we can’t pull any one component out and evaluate it out of context.   Each week we’ll look at one of the components  –  this week it’s wood.

Everybody knows that wood, a natural product, comes from trees,  but it’s important to know much more than whether the wood is cherry or mahagony – it’s also important to know that the wood did not come from an endangered forest (such as a tropical forest, or old growth boreal forests) – and preferably that the wood came from a forest that is sustainably managed.   Well managed forests provide clean water, homes for wildlife, and they help stabilize the climate. As the National Resources Defense Council says:

“Forests are more than a symbolic ideal of wilderness, more than quiet places to enjoy nature. Forest ecosystems — trees, soil, undergrowth, all living things in a forest — are critical to maintaining life on earth. Forests help us breathe by creating oxygen and filtering pollutants from the air, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. They soak up rainfall like giant sponges, preventing floods and purifying water that we drink. They provide habitat for 90 percent of the plant and animal species that live on land, as well as homelands for many of the earth’s last remaining indigenous cultures. Forests are commercially important, too; they yield valuable resources like wood, rubber and medicinal plants, including plants used to create cancer drugs. Harvesting these resources provides employment for local communities.  Healthy forests are a critical part of the web of life. Protecting the earth’s remaining forest cover is now an urgent task.”

Unsustainable logging, agricultural expansion, and other practices threaten many forests’ existence.  Indeed, half of the Earth’s original forest cover has been lost, mostly in the last three decades.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), only 20% of Earth’s original forests remain today in areas large enough to maintain their full complement of biological and habitat diversity and ecological functions.[2]

More than 20% of  worldwide  carbon emissions come from the loss of forests[1], even after counting all the carbon captured by forest growth.  

A sustainable forest is a forest that is carefully managed so that as trees are felled they are replaced with seedlings that eventually grow into mature trees. This is a carefully and skilfully managed system. The forest is a working environment, producing wood products such as wood pulp for the paper / card industry and wood based materials for furniture manufacture and the construction industry. Great care is taken to ensure the safety of wildlife and to preserve the natural environment.

Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products:  it is intended as a seal of approval — a means of notifying consumers that a wood or paper product comes from forests managed in accordance with strict environmental and social standards. For example, a person shopping for flooring or furniture would seek a certified forest product to be sure that the wood was harvested in a sustainable manner from a healthy forest, and not clearcut from a tropical rainforest or the ancestral homelands of forest-dependent indigenous people.

Choosing products from forests certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can be an important part of using wood and paper more sustainably.  The FSC, based in Bonn, Germany,  brought together three seemingly antagonistic groups: environmentalists, industrialists and social activists. Its mission and governance reflects the balance between these original constituents in that FSC seeks to promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests. Each is given equal weight.   Formed in 1993, the FSC has established a set of international forest management standards; it also accredits and monitors certification organizations that evaluate on-the-ground compliance with these standards in forests around the world.  Today nearly 125 million acres of forest are FSC certified in 76 countries.

But not all certification programs are credible. Spurred by the success of the FSC and consumer demand for certified products, at least eight other forest certification programs have formed internationally, such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) forest certification, and the European Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC).  However, these programs are often backed by timber interests and set weak standards for forest management that allow destructive and business-as-usual forestry practices.

The most well known of these alternative certifications is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).   Created in 1995 by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), an industry group, SFI was originally created  as a public relations program,  but it now represents itself as a certification system.

There are significant differences between the two systems.  FSC’s conservation standards tend to be more concrete, while SFI’s are vaguer targets with fewer measurable requirements. Here is what is allowed under the SFI standard:

  • Allows large clearcuts
  • Allows use of toxic chemicals
  • Allows conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations
  • Allows use of genetically modified trees
  • Allows logging close to rivers and streams that harms water supplies

By comparison,  the FSC:

  • Establishes meaningful limits on large-scale clearcutting; harvesting rates and clearing sizes can not exceed a forest’s natural capacity to regenerate.
  • Prohibits the most toxic chemicals and encourages forest practices that reduce chemical use.
  • Does not allow the conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations, and has guidelines for environmental management of existing plantations.
  • Prohibits use of genetically modified trees and other genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Requires management and monitoring of natural forest attributes, including the water supply; for example,  springs and streams are monitored to detect any signs of pollutants or vegetative disturbance.
  • Requires protection measures for rare old growth in certified forests, and consistently requires protection of other high conservation value forests.
  • Prohibits replacement of forests by sprawl and other non-forest land uses.[4]

Certifiers also grant “chain-of-custody” certifications to companies that manufacture and sell products made out of certified wood. A chain-of-custody assessment tracks wood from the forest through milling and manufacturing to the point of sale. This annual assessment ensures that products sold as certified actually originate in certified forests.

Nearly a decade and a half after the establishment of these two certification bodies, there is a battle between FSC and SFI which is crescendoing in a showdown over recognition in the LEED system, the preeminent green building standard in the U.S.  Since its inception in 2000, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has recognized only lumber with the FSC label as responsibly sourced. Up until now, credits such as MR 7 – Certified Wood, has awarded points based on the usage of FSC certified wood only (NOTE:  this is not specific to wood;  LEED  only awards points automatically  for Indoor Air Quality to products which are GreenGuard certified) .  Intense timber industry pressure has led the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED’s parent,  to evaluate the certified wood credit in LEED, which has been FSC exclusive since inception, and determine whether other certification systems, such as the industry-driven Sustainable Forestry Initiative, should be given credits as well.  As a result, the USGBC  is currently writing new rules about wood-product sourcing.

This would replace the simple FSC monopoly with generalized benchmarks for evaluating systems claiming to enforce sustainable forestry and open up considerations for other “green” wood labeling systems.

Opponents of this action feel that it opens the door to destructive forestry practices under the guise of “green” –  and  to pass off status-quo business practices as environmentally friendly.  One of the leading arguments for loosening the wood credit — and thus lowering the bar for the standards governing the origins of the wood — is that the FSC system doesn’t have enough supply to meet demand.  To which the rejoinder is that the volume of SFI wood speaks to laxness of standards.  SFI contends that since only 10% of the world’s forests are certified sustainable, the important fact to concern us should be to work on the problems plaguing the remaining 90%.

The battle is heating up:  it was reported as recently as the 22nd of December, 2009, that a law suit was filed on behalf of a group calling itself the “Coalition for Fair Forest Certification” against the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices.  It is believed that the Coalition members are also members of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.   (see http://greensource.construction.com/news/2009/091222Deception.asp )

We can only hope that USGBC’s certification decision takes place with keen regard to the organization’s guiding principles — high-minded values like “reconciling humanity with nature” and “fostering social equity.” It’s a critical decision that has the potential to help preserve forests by providing incentives for great management and cooling the planet down at the same time.

Once you’ve established whether the wood is from a sustainably managed forest, it’s also important to note whether the wood products in the sofa are composites.  Composites are typically made of wood and adhesive – examples of such composites are laminated veneer lumber (LVL), Medium density fiberboard (MDF), Plywood, and Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam).  Because these products are glued together using phenol formaldehyde resins, there is concern with formaldehyde emissions.  In fact, a bill  introduced in September, 2009, in the U.S.  Senate would limit the amount of allowable formaldehyde emissions in composite wood products.   In addition, the embodied energy in these products is typically higher than that for solid timber.  Based on a  study done by the    School of Engineering, University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom,
the embodied energy in air dried sawn hardwood (0.5 MJ/kg) is considerably less than that of glulam (4.6 to 11.0 MJ/kg)


[1] Van der Werf, G.R, et al, “CO2 Emissions from Forest Loss”, Nature Geoscience, November 1, 2009, pp 737-38.

[2] “Guidelines for Avoiding Wood from Endangered Forests”, http://www.rainforestrelief.org/documents/Guidelines.pdf

[3] Examples of SFI certified companies’ harmful practices are at http://www.dontbuysfi.com.

[4] iGreenBuild.com:  Forest Certification:  Sustainable Forestry or Misleading Marketing?  http://credibleforestcertification.org/fileadmin/materials/old_growth/dont_buy_sfi/sfi_facts/2_-_Still_Not_Equal_igreenbuild.pdf