As Good As Mother's Milk: The US Green Building Movement

Bill Walsh | January 27, 2005 | Policies

"What scientific ethic, what green building principle, what institutional value, is elevated by the decision to ignore evidence of an infant exposed to PCBs and Dioxin in its mother's womb and in her milk?"

A new article by respected environmental journalist Marla Cone[1] lays bare the question of whether or not the real consequences of human chemical exposures are valued by the US green building movement as it debates a PVC-related materials credit for the US Green Building Council's LEED green building rating system.[2]

Cone's latest report, Dozens of Words for Snow, None for Pollution,[3] is an eyewitness rendering of life at ground zero of toxic pollution, the Circumpolar Arctic, which she dubs "the planet's chemical trash can, the final destination for toxic waste that originates thousands of miles away".[4] She's talking about chemicals such as POPs, Persistent Organic Pollutants.[5] To understand how natural forces conspire to carry the most toxic industrial pollutants northward to the earth's most pristine environment, recall the ozone hole, then factor in migrating, contaminated wildlife. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants sets a goal of elimination for 12 of these chemicals. Four of them are unintentional byproducts of the PVC lifecycle: hexachlorobenzene, dioxins, furans, and PCBs, as is mercury, a by-product of some chlorine facilities.[6]

Cone documents PCBs and Mercury in babies' cord blood and mothers' milk in the Arctic at 50 times higher than in urban areas of the United States and Europe, affecting between 60% to 95% of women and children in various communities, and having measurable impacts on the babies including, lower birth weight, impaired memory skills and difficulty in processing new information. Earlier studies have found that Dioxin concentrations in Inuit mothers' milk are twice the levels observed in southern Quebec.[7]

The hard truth Cone reveals is that 650,000 native people of the circumpolar North are literally forced to pick their poison: the chemicals, bioaccumulated in the fatty meat of the marine mammals and seafood the Inuit eat as a matter of culture and routine, or the expensive sugars, carbs and fat in the rations shipped to their convenience stores from outside. Canadian authorities agree with the Aboriginal leaders - the traditional diet is the most affordable, plentiful, and otherwise healthy food for them. But the people are anxious, anxious like most of us never know, anxious in the way you get when you're not sure whether you are feeding your child something poisonous.

None of this human suffering, none of the PCBs and none of the Mercury, appear to register among the data fields, formulas and models that USGBC is currently using to evaluate what it calls hypothetical receptors and pathways for exposure contaminants associated with building products. Which raises the question: What scientific ethic, what green building principle, what institutional value at the USGBC, is elevated by this decision to ignore evidence of an infant receptor, if you will, of PCBs, Mercury and Dioxin via the pathway, if you wish to call it that, of the womb and mother's milk?

Confronted with the horrible reality of a child's first environment[8] violated, and the sacredness of a mother's milk defiled, the nations of the world pointed a way forward in Stockholm last May. Similarly aroused, a growing number of green building professionals, building owners, and ethical businesses are steering the movement's best practices in the same direction - to target these most potent toxic chemicals for elimination from their products and buildings. The USGBC has now signaled its intent to change the course of the green building movement by refusing to recognize this leadership with a LEED credit. And, according to USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi, "If it's not LEED, it's not green."[9]

Available Now

A new HBN analysis (PDF) of the USGBC's TSAC PVC Report is now available. HBN Staff Member Tom Lent boils down complex technical issues into a seven-page road map geared toward members of the public who are interested in this issue and would like to submit public comments to the USGBC. Lent documents how the TSAC report routinely ignores evidence of toxic emissions from the PVC lifecycle, as well as human exposure to the toxic by-products of the PVC lifecycle. It's not only Inuit babies who don't register in the world as viewed through this lens. Download the report here:


Make Your Voice Heard at the USGBC

The public has until February 15 to comment on the USGBC's draft report on PVC. The draft report fails to address key environmental health priorities and threatens to undermine progress made toward reducing PVC use by governments, green building professionals, and manufacturers.

Check out HBN's action points on the draft report at or download its new 7-page analysis at And send your comments to tsac @ today!


[1] Marla Cone brings more than 20 years of experience to her staff position at the Los Angeles Times. In 1999, she was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation to study the effects of chemical pollution in the Arctic. She spent the better part of two years working on her forthcoming book, Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic, is due out in May.

[2] "Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit in LEED" can be downloaded at For HBN's critique of the TSAC report, visit

[3] Marla Cone, "Dozens of Words for Snow, None for Pollution" Mother Jones, January/February 2005. See

[4] Ibid., p. 63.

[5] POPs are highly toxic in small doses, dangerous to human health in a number of ways besides cancer, last a very long time in the environment, and often build-up (bioaccumulate) in the food chain. Dioxin and Furans are unique in that they have never had commercial value. They are unintentional by-products of combustion, especially the combustion of chlorine-bearing materials. PVC, at 50% or more chlorine by weight, is unique among building materials in this sense.

[6] Dow Chemical. 1990. Waste Analysis Sheet: Heavy Ends from the distillation of Ethylene Dichlorine in EthyleneDichloride Production. Plaquemine, LA, February 21. If Dow's analysis is representative of heavy ends in general, then EDC oxychlorination results in the worldwide production of a remarkable 20,000 pounds of PCBs each year, even though these compounds were banned from intentional production some 20 years ago. This calculation assumes global production of 32 kiltons of EDC heavy ends per year. Use of more recent figures for global PVC production rates (Kielhorn et al. 2000) would increase this estimate by about 50 percent. See, Thornton, "The Environmental Impacts of PVC Building Materials," p. 27, available at

[7] North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, "Study Links Dioxin Pollution in Arctic to North American Sources," March 10, 2000.

[8] The term "first environment" was coined by Katsi (pronounced Gudgi) Cook, the Mohawk midwife who first brought the contaminated breast milk of Inuit communities to the world's attention. For more information , Google "Katsi Cook first environment" for many inspiring references.

[9] Environmental Building News, December, 2004.