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LEED Buildings Rated Green … and Often Toxic

A new study from a health-research nonprofit blasts LEED for failing to protect against toxic indoor environments.

A new study from a health-research nonprofit blasts LEED for failing to protect against toxic indoor environments.

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The study, released last week by the Connecticut-based Environment and Human Health, Inc.,says that the voluntary rating system — the gold standard for green buildingseverywhere — falsely presents its projects as bastions of health andsafety, when it actually allows for all sorts of harmful stuff, whetherpesticides in tap water or formaldehyde-laden particleboard. “Althoughthe primary stated purposes of the Green Building Council are topromote both energy efficiency and human health,” says John Wargo,a professor of risk analysis and environmental policy at Yaleand the study’s lead author, “even the Council’s most prestigiousPlatinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are keptout of the certified buildings.”

The report’s yet another blowto LEED and its nonprofit administrator the U.S. Green Building Council(USGBC), which have become prime targets for environmental groups inrecent years. The standard is seen as eco-lite and tooindustry-friendly. Some of the stiffest attacks come from energyconservationists, who say that LEED buildings don’t live up to theirown benchmark — a criticism borne out by the USGBC’s internalresearch. A 2008 study found that one-fourth of freshly certified projects weren’t conserving as much energy as their LEED seals indicate, and most weren’t tracking energy consumption at all.

The Environment and Human Health report is focused less onenergy performance than on the flesh and bones of the buildingsthemselves. It cites, for instance, substances common in building materials, like phthalates (used in floor and wall coverings);short-chain chlorinated paraffins (used in flame retardants); andperfluorinated chemicals (used in carpets and upholstery). All of theseare listed as “chemicals of concern,” according to the EnvironmentalProtection Agency — and all of them are fair game under LEED.

In the realm of a voluntary rating system, do these violations really matter? As the study’s authors point out,LEED is now law in many states and municipalities across the country, fromSan Francisco to Kentucky — which makes the program a publichealth issue. The report offers various suggestions for a healthierLEED like running tests for indoor air and water quality afterpeople have moved in, docking credits for using hazardous substances,and filling the USGBC’s top ranks with more medical professionals. (Atthe moment, there’s just one formally trained doctor on the board ofdirectors.) It also makes recommendations for the federal government toupdate its toxic materials database.

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The USGBC’s response: “There’s validity in what these people are saying, andwe want to work with them to improve LEED,” says Scot Horst, seniorvice president for LEED. At the same time, he dismisses any drasticmeasures. “LEED could say there should be no chemicals in any buildingand no energy used and no water and every building should give backwater and energy,” he tells us. “We could do all that, and no one woulduse the rating system. We can only take the market as far as it’swilling to go.” Sounds like those environmental groups are onto something, after all.

[Top two photos, of California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and City Center in Las Vegas via ArchDaily; bottom photo of One Bryant Park in New York via World Architecture News]

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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