LEED grapples with toxic chemical credits and toxic industry attacks

Tom Lent | June 18, 2012 | Policies

Will the USGBC’s new draft credits to avoid chemicals of concern in building materials “significantly undermine the goal of improving energy efficiency, and ultimately undermine our economy”? So said the American Chemistry Council this week in one of the more impressive pieces of bombast yet produced in their war in the halls of Congress to get the US government to stop using the LEED system. We are scratching our heads here at HBN trying to imagine how an optional credit that rewards removing a handful of chemicals (14 to be exact) that have already been designated for phase out in the entire European Union from just a small percentage of building materials in a project (just 20%) could undermine the US economy.

The ACC’s argument is that LEED should only address efficiency not chemicals and health. Rewarding manufacturers for avoidance of toxic chemicals of concern in energy efficiency products they say is “punitive” and hurts American manufacturing.

For over a decade, the chemical industry’s efforts effectively kept chemical of concern avoidance credits out of the main LEED tools. But while this debate played out in the LEED Technical Advisory Committee, first the Green Guide for Health Care and then LEED for Health Care started to define what these credits could look like.  Meanwhile Pharos users and leading manufacturers were proving that products could be designed and specified without some of the worst of toxic chemicals and could be good business. Finally last year the widely-anticipated chemical disclosure and avoidance credits were released for public comment in LEED 2012.

The chemical credits have gone through substantive change with each consecutive public comment round (they are now through four rounds). The content disclosure part has been split into a separate credit and appears to be on a good path to completion. We expect the Health Product Declaration will be a prime documentation pathway for this credit.

The path forward for the avoidance side of the credit remains tortuous. The credit started as an expansion of the LEED for Healthcare credits rewarding avoidance of a range of heavy metals, PVC and other halogenated compounds, plus a list of chemicals of concern identified by the state of California. Now it has shifted into a credit based upon the European REACH chemical regulatory system. It rewards two actions in project materials 1) registeration under REACH in Europe or under a similar system in the US and 2) avoidance of the REACH list of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs) that have been targeted for phase out in Europe.

Given that no such REACH-like registration system exists yet in the US, the first begs some substantial questions about how LEED will implement this – one of many reasons that this version of LEED is going for an unprecedented fifth revision and round of public comment starting in October, a beta period into 2013 to work out bugs and a name change from LEED 2012 to LEED v4. HBN is strongly supportive of the decision to extend the process and use a beta test period to get the new credits in v4 figured out. We are concerned, however, about discussion of making the older LEED (2009) available for several years after release of v4. The USGBC will have to put in place strong incentives for users to switch or risk having v4 ignored for years.

The choice of the REACH system comes from the USGBC’s desire not to create a USGBC-designed list of chemicals but instead to find the one right external authoritative governmental list to reference.  But while all chemicals must be registered, the list of chemicals that are actually slated for sunset under REACH is small – only 14 chemicals. The more extensive REACH Candidate list of SVHCs encompassing some of the worst carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants, and persistent bioaccumulative toxicants (PBTs) would be a much better starter avoidance list for LEED.

In Pharos, however, we decided long ago that there is no single comprehensive “best” list.  Each authoritative hazard list has different priorities and covers different health issues with varying criteria. As the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals directs, it is important to assemble a range of lists to fully cover the range of important health hazards and not make what can turn out to be regrettable substitutions.   That’s why we developed the Chemical and Material Library in Pharos.

All of the lists that LEED has been considering, from California Proposition 65 to REACH, are currently included in Pharos.  Pharos tags products that use these chemicals with orange, red or purple flags, depending on the degree of hazard helping users keep ahead of potential directions for the LEED chemicals of concern avoidance credits.  As LEED finds its path, Pharos will adjust its filters to help users find the products that are clear of the chemicals of concern identified in thre credits.

The LEED public comment period is officially closed right now. The next round is scheduled to open October 2nd. In the meantime, to keep the “L”(eadership) in LEED, we all should engage to counterbalance the attacks from the more regressive sides of the chemical industry and encourage bold progress by the USGBC.   Let the USGBC and your local chapters know how interested you are in supporting LEED’s moves towards robust credits for disclosure and avoidance of chemicals of concern. Healthy buildings are fundamental to a healthy economy.


For my complete comments on the avoidance credit (and much discussion of other challenges and debates around LEED v4) see HBN commentary in LEEDUser. You also can obtain the LEEDv4 draft here.

For a very complete response to the ACC memo see Paula Melton's excellent article: Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: BuildingGreen Checks the Facts