Montreal, Kyoto, now Stockholm: International Treaty Calls for Use of Alternative Materials

Bill Walsh | March 22, 2004

To the green building cognoscenti Montreal and Kyoto are documents, not destinations. They can add Stockholm to the list of world-class cities associated forever with the world's most pressing environmental challenges.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) targets 12 priority toxic chemicals for elimination including dioxins and furans, PCBs, and eight pesticides. The treaty has now been ratified by the requisite 50 signatory nations, and will enter into force this May. Even the Bush Administration got behind this environmental effort, signing the treaty in May of 2001. It now awaits ratification by the U.S. Senate.

The treaty provides explicit guidance to the U.S. Green Building Council and others who would define green building standards. Its' Preamble "[r]ecognize[s] the important contribution that the private sector and non-governmental organizations can make to achieving the reduction and/or elimination of emissions and discharges of persistent organic pollutants." Article 5(c) calls for: "Promotion - and where appropriate requirement - of the development and use of substitute or modified materials to prevent the formation and release of these POPs products and processes…". Forget the smokestack controls - Stockholm is calling for getting rid of materials implicated in dioxin release - and it calls for market signals to help.

The Stockholm Convention confirms that POPs are nasty, posing a global threat to human health and the environment on par with the ozone hole and climate change. According to the World Wildlife Fund, this is because: they are toxic at very low doses; they are persistent, resisting normal processes that break down contaminants; they accumulate in the body fat of people, marine mammals, and other animals and pass through the placenta and via breast milk from mother to offspring. Even minute quantities can cause nervous system damage, diseases of the immune system, reproductive and developmental disorders, and cancers. Who is most vulnerable? Our kids - in the womb and in infancy, as their vital organ systems are developing.

Dioxin is first among equals in the POPs world because, unlike DDT or PCBs, dioxin is never intentionally manufactured, never had a beneficial use nor any commercial value. Dioxin results unavoidably from manufacture and combustion of chlorine bearing products, including many building materials. But no building material comes close to the chorine content of PVC (also known as vinyl), which can contain 50% or more chlorine by weight. This high chorine content, experts say, makes PVC the largest material source of dioxin to the environment. While other materials may also contribute dioxins, there is no better place to start elimination than with PVC. It has no place on the palette of green building materials.

Many green building standards conform to the treaty language already including the Green Guidelines for Health Care Construction, the Pentagon Renovation Project, the World Bank International Finance Corporation, and the Green Building Council of Australia's GreenStar. With no provision to reward avoidance of dioxin generating materials like PVC, the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standard does not.

This is why the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), comprised of 350 public health, environmental, consumer, and other non-governmental organizations in 65 countries, has asked the U.S. Green Building Council to expeditiously enact a PVC avoidance credit to bring LEED in accordance with the Stockholm Convention on POPs. Visit HBN's website to add your voice to theirs. The USGBC is soliciting stakeholder input until April 1, 2004.


EnvironDesign 8

April 21-23, 2004 - Minneapolis, MN

The Healthy Building Network and Greenpeace have been invited to participate in this national conference celebrating environmental stewardship and sustainable development. HBN will be displaying materials about the newly completed PVC-Free Habitat for Humanity home this April. Read more about the conference [link no longer available].