LEED Building Standards Fail to Protect Human Health

LEED certification has emerged as the green standard of approval for new buildings in the United States. But the criteria used for determining the ratings largely ignore factors relating to human health, particularly the use of potentially toxic building materials.

The LEED program — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is playing an increasingly important role in the drive to make buildings in the United States greener and more energy efficient. LEED is now the most prominent and widely adopted green building certification program in the country, with architects and developers striving to earn LEED’s coveted platinum or gold rating, and an increasing number of local, state, and federal regulations beginning to incorporate LEED standards into official building codes.

But LEED — sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry group — has a glaring and little-known drawback: It places scant emphasis on factors relating to human health, even as the largely unregulated use of potentially toxic building materials continues to expand. 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 the unprecedented number of chemicals used in today’s building materials and furnishings. Yet, as the threat from indoor air pollution grows, LEED puts almost no weight on human health factors in deciding whether a building meets its environmental and social goals.

I was lead author of a report on this issue that was released in May, and I recently met with Green Building Council executives, who made it clear that LEED’s management is deeply committed to an energy efficient future. Yet it also was apparent that the certification system is unlikely to soon focus on health with respect to hazardous chemicals.

The job of setting standards for new construction should not be left to a private-sector organization.

At this point, LEED, a voluntary set of standards created by architects, engineers and builders, can award its highest level of certification —platinum — to a structure that earns no credits for air quality. In practice, the average LEED-certified building achieves only 6 percent of its total points for “indoor environmental quality,” the category most closely tied to health, although some of these credits are often given for lighting and thermal comfort rather than assurance of reduced exposure to dangerous substances.

This fact points up a serious flaw in the program: The job of setting standards for new construction — particularly health standards — should not be left to a private-sector organization dominated by members who profit from the sale of goods and services to the building sector.

The potential threats to human health — data suggest that increased chemical exposure in indoor environments may be one reason behind a rapid rise in childhood asthma, for example — require more aggressive action, primarily from the federal government. Because the public interest in healthy, energy-efficient, and environmentally safe buildings is enormous — and well beyond the capacity, financial interests, and willingness of the building industry to manage — the nation needs a comprehensive federal law to control the chemical content of the built environment. LEED is simply not up to the job.

Toxics in Buildings

In 1999, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began testing human tissue samples to detect the presence of environmental contaminants. CDC scientists reported that most individuals carry a mixture of metals, plastic polymers, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, and waterproofing agents, all commonly present in modern buildings. Children often carry higher concentrations than adults.

Many of the chemical ingredients in these 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. Others may erode from metal or plastic water pipes and end up in a glass of water.

The widespread use of such chemicals comes at a time when Americans spend, on average, 90 percent of their time indoors or in vehicles. American children — who increasingly forsake outdoor recreation to occupy themselves for more than seven hours a day with electronic media — spend an astonishing 97 percent of their lives indoors or in cars, according to a recent survey.

Programs such as LEED place relatively little emphasis on indoor air quality.

In December 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of chemicals that “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to health and the environment.” The EPA list includes four classes of chemicals widely used in the building industry and approved for use by the LEED rating system. These chemicals include phthalates (used as softeners in flexible vinyl products, such as floor and wall coverings); short-chain chlorinated paraffins (used in plastics); PBDEs (used as flame retardants in textiles, plastics, and wire insulation); and perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOA (used for non-stick cookware and stain resistant materials). Many LEED-certified buildings have been constructed using some of these compounds.

Plastics pose a special problem, as they now comprise nearly 70 percent of the synthetic chemical industry in the United States. More than 100 billion pounds of resins are produced each year, forming many different building materials, including window and door casings, furnishings, electrical wiring, piping, insulation, water and waste conduits, floor coverings, paints, appliances, countertops, lighting fixtures, and electronics.

Hazardous chemicals have become components of LEED-certified indoor environments primarily due to the failures of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and EPA’s neglect of the problem. Congress has given the EPA limited authority to require testing of likely hazardous chemicals in building products. Among nearly 80,000 chemicals in commerce, EPA has required toxicity testing of only 200 in nearly 25 years. These test results led EPA to ban or phase out only five chemicals. The overwhelming majority of chemicals in buildings remain untested, meaning that new products may incorporate tens of thousands of untested chemicals with no government oversight. Since TSCA places the burden of proof of hazard on EPA, nearly all chemicals in building materials have escaped federal testing and regulation.

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.

In fact, programs such as LEED place relatively little emphasis on indoor air quality and the impact of “off-gassing” of chemicals on the health of a building’s occupants.

The impetus for the creation of the LEED program was the acknowledgment that more than 100 million buildings in the U.S. consume 76 percent of the of the nation’s electricity. The U.S. Green Building Council — a private organization with nearly 19,000 members, including developers, engineers, architects, and building materials manufacturers — understandably created LEED to focus primarily on energy conservation.

Testing of chemicals should be conducted by an independent, government-supervised institute.

The LEED scoring system is weighted heavily toward energy conservation. The largest category of possible credits for new construction encourages energy conservation, either directly via use of renewable technologies — solar panels, geothermal wells, insulation — or indirectly through demonstrations of reduced water use, proximity to public transit, or use of locally produced materials.

LEED staff evaluate building performance, assign scores (a total of 100 points is possible), and issue certificates based upon the total award to determine whether “platinum,” “gold,” or “silver” standards have been achieved. These designations often create eligibility for income tax credits, property tax reductions, and lower interest loans. And these public subsidies often enhance property value.

LEED has no requirement for post-occupancy air quality monitoring for particulate matter or volatile organic compounds. These are primary threats to health, especially among those with background respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

The effect of many energy-conserving design features and materials is to encourage better sealed and insulated buildings. Tighter structures lower the exchange between indoor and outdoor air unless ventilation is carefully monitored and managed. Since indoor air is often more contaminated by synthetic chemicals than outdoor air, the effect may intensify occupants’ chemical exposures, increasing health risks.

Recently, I worked closely with colleagues at Environment and Human Health, Inc., a non-profit organization comprised of medical doctors, as well as public health and policy experts, to examine these questions. Our report, LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health, called for a federal law to control the chemical content of the built environment. Its purpose should be to protect human health and environmental quality, to encourage materials recycling, and to reduce waste.

What would key elements of a national healthy building policy include?

EPA should maintain a national registry of the chemical content of building products and furnishings.

New chemicals should be tested to understand their threat to human health before they are allowed to be sold. Existing chemicals should also be tested, rather than be exempted, as they are under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The burden of proof of safety should rest with chemical and building product manufacturers; it’s now up to EPA to demonstrate significant danger before the agency may regulate chemicals in commerce. 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. Priority should be given to test and eliminate those compounds found in human tissues by the Centers for Disease Control.

The chemical contents of building materials and their country of origin should be identified. Without this knowledge, architects, engineers, and consumers have no hope of avoiding products that could lead to environmental damage or ill health effects.

EPA should maintain a national registry of the chemical content of building products, furnishings, and cleaning products. The registry should also record and update the chemical testing status and recyclability of a product. The agency should create and maintain a single database that identifies chemical toxicity, level of hazard, common sources of exposure, and an assessment of the adequacy of data used to support these classifications.

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. Although LEED has a separate certification system in place for schools, it suffers from the same limited attention to environmental health.

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. EPA is the most logical agency for this assignment given its congressionally mandated purpose to protect human health. The Green Building Council should encourage developers to move beyond minimum federal requirements, though this would require substantial changes in the LEED certification system.

LEED has performed a valuable and significant public service, especially by encouraging designs and technologies that conserve energy. The Green Building Council has become a potent force in shaping the future of the building industry. The program, however, does not offer sufficient protection to human health, nor should it be expected to do so, given its limited legal authority, expertise, and financial capacity. It’s time to ensure through federal law that green buildings become healthy buildings.