Chemical Giants Target the USGBC: Part 1

Bill Walsh | May 22, 2012 | Policies

The credibility of the US chemical industry has taken a beating in the press this month. But instead of apologizing, pledging to reform its ways, or disciplining a "few bad apples," for being caught lying red handed, the industry has doubled down and launched an all out attack on the US Green Building Council.[1] The focus of the attack - modest amendments to the LEED Rating System, two voluntary credits that address the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and other toxins in LEED-rated buildings.

To recap, during the week of May 6th, the Chicago Tribune published a four-part series documenting the collusion between US chemical companies and Big Tobacco to promote the widespread use of toxic flame retardants (now widely used in building products and furnishings) that don't even reduce fire threats, but do greatly increase health threats from endocrine-disrupting chemicals in American children. The Columbia Journalism Review hailed the Tribune series as an "outstanding investigation" of "a decades-long campaign of deception" that "manipulated scientific findings" with "flaws so basic they violate central tenets of science," and created a "phony consumer watchdog," a "front" that has "misrepresented itself." In last Sunday's New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristoff called it "a case study of everything that is wrong with money politics."

The Tribune series coincided with the May 7th publication of Breasts, a new book by highly-regarded freelance journalist and Outside magazine contributing editor Florence Williams. Ms. Williams, while breast-feeding her second child, searches for answers as to why her breast milk, tested by a German laboratory, contains such high levels of dioxins and, yes, flame retardants. Her May 16th radio interview on Fresh Air is not to be missed for its clear and compelling explanation of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals and their impact on children.

Just a week earlier, Steve Coll, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer for the New Yorker, published Private Empire - Exxon Mobil and American Power. He documents how a group of more than a dozen ExxonMobil executives, gave contributions all at once to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton's re-election committee. The money flowed after Barton championed a bill that greatly restricted the regulation of endocrine-disrupting phthalates, chemicals manufactured by Exxon Mobil and widely used in flexibly vinyl building products such as roofing membranes, flooring and wall coverings.[2]

So it should come as no surprise that in the midst of all of this documented manipulation of the media, government and science, 56 members of Congress have nevertheless been motivated by the American Chemistry Council "action alert" to ask the General Services Administration to stop using the LEED rating system in government buildings.[3] The goal is to remove two modest credit proposals for the LEED rating system. These credits would:

encourage (but not require) the disclosure of chemical ingredients in building products, and

encourage (but not require) the avoidance of some endocrine-disrupting chemicals including some phthalates and flame retardants, while rewarding products whose ingredients have been assessed for chemical hazard and submitted to the European REACH chemical safety program or a third party US equivalent.

The chemical industry attack is out of all proportion to the action being proposed by the USGBC. The credits in question are voluntary. They can be earned by addressing as little as 20% of the materials used on a project. In many respects, they are an acknowledgement of current best practices by industry leaders.

The proposed LEED credits do not go nearly as far as the chemical-avoidance policies now in use by industry leaders such as Google, Perkins+Will, or the Living Building Challenge, which guides over 100 projects including Seattle's Bullitt Center, the "greenest commercial building in the world."

The US chemical lobby is a threat to be sure. But the much greater threat to the USGBC is to be on the wrong side of history, and for LEED to stand silent as more and more people make the link between the toxic chemicals in their LEED-rated home, office, school or delivery room, and the presence of those same chemicals in mother's milk and babies.

The public comment period for LEED 2012 is open until May 28th. You can join the discussion at LEEDuser.


[1] See e.g.: