Where Is The US Green Building Council LEEDing Us? Trade Associations Draw The Map

Bill Walsh | January 10, 2005 | Policies


Don't miss the USGBC's response to this newsletter found below.

Over the past two decades, industry and conservative think tanks have invested millions of dollars to corrupt science. They distort the truth about tobacco, pesticides, ozone depletion, dioxin, acid rain and global warming. In their attempt to undermine the credible basis for public action (by positing that all opinions are politically driven and therefore any one is as true as any other), they also undermine belief in the integrity of the scientific process.

- Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., February, 2004[2]

Two stunning proposals by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) concerning PVC plastic and certified wood confirm that the nation's most anti-environmental trade associations have the capacity to set the course of the US green building movement.

On December 22nd, the USGBC released its draft policy regarding PVC plastic.[3] The draft rejects, without comment, every analytic approach recommended by environmental health experts and green building professionals, and defers to the Vinyl Institute's insistence upon a discredited statistical analysis known as Risk Assessment. Risk Assessment, famously used by the Tobacco Institute to defend cigarette smoking for a generation, is currently the Bush Administration's weapon of choice in its assault on environmental health standards.[4] The USGBC heads down the same road in concluding that: "Using current data for LCA [life cycle analysis] and risk assessment . . . our analysis shows that PVC does not emerge as a clear winner or loser."[5] Mind if I smoke?

Risk Assessment is the operating system of the cigarette science machine, employing complex calculations to mask hollow assumptions and embarrassing biases in favor of industrial polluters.[6] Risk assessment has been thoroughly discredited since at least 1991, when an international gathering of prominent, independent scientists issued a consensus statement that read, in relevant part: We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to adequately protect human health and the environment, as well as the larger system of which humans are but a part.[7] In 1993 the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote: "Are the principles and practice of cancer risk assessment up to the task of providing complete protection from cancer to consumers...The answer remains no."[8]

Those who are skeptical of environmental activists might find persuasive the reasoning of a corporate lawyer from a blue chip law firm who, writing in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, concludes that: "environmental risk assessment as currently practiced is anything but scientific, objective, and credible." [9]

The PVC policy recommendations appear to be part of a pattern of trade associations driving USGBC policy. Take a look at the latest draft of the LEED for New Construction Rating System (LEED-NC), version 2.2, released on December 3rd.[10] While retaining the credit for FSC certified wood, the proposed revision also encourages logging according to timber industry standards condemned by forest conservation groups and leaders in the sustainable wood products business. This will undermine the widely accepted Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of wood products. To appreciate the depths of this betrayal, recall that FSC certification standards are themselves a negotiated compromise. The USGBC proposal subverts this balanced approach and legitimizes a greenwash standard that was created by, and is controlled by, the American Forest & Paper Association and its member timber companies.

LEED's stated mission is to "accelerate global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices," and to create and implement "universally understood and accepted standards, tools and performance criteria."[11] Following a road map drawn by some of the nation's most anti-environmental trade associations, these policy proposals do worse than perpetuate the status quo. They undermine leadership in the field, contradict environmental policy goals, and threaten current market trends away from PVC and toward FSC certified wood. The organization is losing its way. It's time to stop and ask for directions.

The USGBC Response

It is HBN policy that whenever we criticize the USGBC directly, we will publish the USGBC perspective as well. HBN invited the USGBC to respond to this article. We are pleased that they did, and publish their response, unedited. We did edit a paragraph in our newsletter in order to address USGBC's concern that the original version implied that the FSC standard would no longer be recognized by LEED. There is no proposal to remove FSC recognition from LEED. -- Bill Walsh

"USGBC supports the Healthy Building Network's goals of protecting the health of building occupants, but we profoundly disagree with the assertions in this newsletter. The DRAFT report "Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit in LEED" was prepared by an expert working group comprising acknowledged experts in building materials, in Life Cycle Assessment and Toxicology, but with no affiliations to the PVC industry. The expert working group developed a methodology (which included Risk Assessment) and invited public comment in writing and at an open public meeting which Healthy Building Network participated extensively in. The expert working group then compiled evidence from over 2,400 scientific reports using this methodology to complete their draft report. The draft report is itself now available for public comment and USGBC invite and encourage all interested stakeholders to comment on the technical content of the report before 15 February 2005. The expert group look forward to assimilating valid technical criticisms or concerns into the report before finalizing it. USGBC also invite public comment on the LEED NC V2.2 draft also out for public comment. HBN are mistaken to imply that the FSC standard is no longer recognized within LEED NC V2.2.

Thank you for your passion for safeguarding the health of building occupants, and for taking the time to understand how we're approaching these critical issues. If you have questions about the process, we're available to talk with you about them. And with regard to any concerns you may have about either the Draft "Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit in LEED" or the Draft LEED-NC v2.2, both comment periods are open to your participation."

Nigel Howard, Vice-President of LEED® & International Programs


[1] Last June, the US Green Building Council Board voted "not to create a new membership category for trade associations" while at the same time voting "to increase the dialog with trade associations to better understand issues of concern to them and demonstrate that the Council is neither a closed nor a restrictive organization." See "Trade Associations: The Good News & The Same Old Story"

[2] http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040308&c=4&s=kennedy

[3] "Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit in LEED" can be downloaded at http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/LEED_tsac/USGBC_TSAC_PVC_Draft_Report_12-17-04..pdf

[4] See the Center For Science in the Public Interests research into the Bush Administration's Director of Office of Management and Budget, John Graham (formerly the director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis) http://www.cspinet.org/integrity/press/200105171.html

[5] "Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit in LEED", p. 10; While this article focuses on Risk Assessment, HBN has also critiqued the over-reliance upon fledgling Life-Cycle Assessment tools elsewhere http://www.healthybuilding.net/life_cycle.html

[6] For a scholarly critique of Risk Assessment, see Mary O'Brien, MAKING BETTER ENVIRONMENTAL DECISIONS; AN ALTERNATIVE TO RISK ASSESSMENT (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000). ISBN 0-262-15051-4. For a thumbnail compilation of critical quotes about Risk Assessment at http://www.safe2use.com/ca-ipm/reality_checks.htm, or enter "risk assessment is like" into a search engine.

[7] Wingspread Statement On the Precautionary Principle: http://www.gdrc.org/u-gov/precaution-3.html

[8] http://www.ejnet.org/rachel/rhwn340.htm

[9] Shere, Mark Eliot. "The Myth of Meaningful Environmental Risk Assessment." The Harvard Environmental Law Review, WINTER, 1995. 19 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 409 http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=481

[10] LEED-NC Version 2.2 can be downloaded at http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/LEEDdocs/NCCC%20v2%202%20MASTER_public_1.pdf

[11] LEED Policy Manual, Spring 2003, p.3 http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/LEEDdocs/LEED%20Foundations%20Policy%20Manual%20-%20August%202003.pdf