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LEED-Certified Green Buildings Fail to Protect Human Health

(Beyond Pesticides, May 27, 2010) A new report showcases the pitfalls of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program in regards to protecting human health from environmental hazards. The report, “LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides With Human Health,” put out by Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), warns that the LEED certification gives a false impression of a healthy and safe building environment and offers recommendations for the program to become more protective of human health.

EHHI found that LEED standards have been incorporated into many federal, state and local laws, and many other corporations and other institutions have adopted LEED standards as well. Although this has encouraged energy efficiency in buildings, according John Wargo, Ph.D., lead author of the study and professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University, it has been implemented without fully understanding that energy conservation efforts often reduce the exchange of indoor and outdoor air, which can cause synthetic chemicals to concentrate within buildings. “Tighter buildings often concentrate chemicals released from building materials, cleaning supplies, fuel combustion, pesticides and other hazardous substances,” he said.

Energy efficiency is given a high priority over health. The report found that about four times as many credits are awarded for energy conservation and design (35 possible credits) than for protection of indoor air quality (8 possible credits). LEED’s highest rating, “Platinum,” for instance, is attainable without even earning any credits for indoor air quality protection. Additionally, EHHI chides the LEED program for having only one medical doctor out of 25 total positions on the board of directors. This is particularly troubling news in light of the recent report by the President’s Cancer Panel, which found that environmental toxins belong to a group of carcinogens that have not been addressed adequately by the nation’s cancer program.

Toxic pesticides, including those already banned, have been shown to persist in homes. A California study found that residential and agricultural pesticides persist in household dust. In these studies chlorpyrifos continues to be one of the most frequently detected chemical in homes. Significant amounts of pyrethroid pesticides, such as permethrin, have also been found in indoor dust of homes and childcare centers. Inner-city homes have also documented the occurrence of pesticide residues in indoor dusts and air samples, including a sampling of homes of pregnant women which found that 75% of their homes were contaminated with pesticides.

“The underlying problem,” explained Dr. Wargo, “is that thousands of different chemicals, many of them well recognized to be hazardous, are allowed by the federal government to become components of building materials. Very few of these chemicals have been tested to identify their toxicity, environmental fate or the danger they pose to human health. Although the primary stated purposes of the Green Building Council are to promote both energy efficiency and human health, even the Council’s most prestigious Platinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of the certified buildings.”

Another issue that the report raises is that there is no federal definition of “green building standards” as there is for organic food or even drinking water standards. Due to the lack of regulation, many trade organizations have created their own certification programs, thus allowing the potential for “greenwashing,” or the promotion of a product or service as environmentally friendly when the veracity of such claims is dubious.

In order to encourage Green Building Council’s LEED program to become more health protective, EHHI is recommending the following:
1. The Green Building Council (GBC) should simplify the LEED scoring system within categories. Rather than issuing awards of “platinum,” “gold” and so on, the GBC should require performance within each category (health, energy, sites, neighborhoods, etc.) on a 0-100 scale.
2. The GBC should expand its board expertise to include people in the area of human health. The board is now dominated by developers, engineers, chemical and materials manufacturers, and architects.
3. The government should categorize building products to identify: a) those that contain hazardous compounds; b) those that have been tested and found to be safe; and c) those that have been insufficiently tested, making a determination of hazard or safety impossible. This database should be freely available on the internet.
4. The chemical content and country of origin of building materials should be clearly identifiable on building product labels.
5. The GBC should support federal efforts to require the testing of chemicals used in many building products for their toxicity, environmental fate and threat to human health.

Regarding pesticide use, the report recommends that indoor applications of registered pesticides occur only after physical and biological control has been attempted and found to be ineffective, and if a public health authority has determined that the health risks from the pesticides would be less than the target pests. They also say that the GBC should also require that occupants receive prior notification of the pesticide used, its chemical content and toxicity, as well as timing and methods of chemical application.

Additional details on EHHI’s recommendations for the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program can be found here.


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