New Hope for Scientific Integrity in the Green Building Movement

Bill Walsh | February 04, 2009 | Policies

Early in his inaugural address, President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in public policymaking. Three days later on January 23, EPA Administrator-designate, Lisa Jackson, pledged in her introductory email to all EPA employees, “As your Administrator, I will uphold the values of scientific integrity, rule of law and transparency every day.”

“The President believes,” wrote Jackson, “that when EPA addresses scientific issues, it should rely on the expert judgment of the Agency's career scientists and independent advisors. When scientific judgments are suppressed, misrepresented or distorted by political agendas, Americans can lose faith in their government to provide strong public health and environmental protection.”

Last May, Healthy Building News profiled the corporate product defense industry -- a conglomeration of lawyers, public relations firms and scientists-for-hire dedicated to suppressing, misrepresenting and distorting scientific judgments that raise concerns about dangerous products. For nearly a decade, their expertise also has been targeted at the USGBC, blocking efforts to create LEED™ credits that would reward the avoidance of PVC and highly toxic chemicals. By signaling its rejection of the product defense industry’s cigarette-science strategy, the Obama Administration provides new support for the USGBC to apply the Precautionary Principle to improve LEED™ in ways that promote healthier building materials.

Two of the last environmental health policy announcements by the lame-duck Bush Administration illustrate what is at stake. On October 15, 2008, the Bush Administration announced the formation of yet another scientific review of the EPA’s health assessment study on dioxins, a chemical byproduct of the production, use and disposal of PVC plastic (also known as vinyl).

The EPA completed its first report on dioxins in 1985, concluding that there was an increased cancer risk in humans at dioxin exposure levels lower than had been estimated by any government agency anywhere in the world. At the chemical industry’s request, EPA initiated a reassessment in 1988, and then a second reassessment in 1991. The EPA released a “final draft” reassessment in 2000, and in June 2001, the EPA Science Advisory Board sent a letter to then EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman urging the reassessment be completed and released “expeditiously.” But, after 20 years, the US EPA Dioxin Assessment / Reassessment remains a draft.

In the meantime, the chemical and plastics industries routinely fend off attempts to reduce PVC use, including a proposed credit for PVC-avoidance in LEED, arguing that the dioxin assessment from EPA is not yet final and requires further study.

At about the same time the Bush EPA was announcing the fifth review of dioxin in 25 years, the Science Advisory Board to the Bush Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was publicly disputing that agency’s declaration that a chemical known as bisphenol A, or BPA, is safe. In doing so, the FDA ignored nearly 100 independently-funded and government studies that found important health impacts from low doses of the chemical. Instead, it accepted the conclusions from about one dozen industry-funded studies which “used outdated and insensitive standard toxicological approaches to examining the effects of BPA,” [1] and which, not surprisingly, found no harmful effects.

BPA was originally developed as a synthetic hormone, and an increasing body of evidence suggests that it can harm human health at extremely low exposures – parts per trillion. BPA has been in the news lately because it has been found to leach from the polycarbonate plastic used in some baby bottles and the popular Nalgene water bottles.

Responsible baby bottle manufacturers ignored the reassurances of the Bush Administration and began shifting away from polycarbonate plastic anyway. This prompted a plastics industry journal to declare “another victory for the precautionary principle . . . when the issue relates to babies,” and to ask: “Are we seeing the beginning of a trend that will eventually expand to products that adults use too?” [2]

Let’s hope so. On January 30, 2009, a peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Health Perspectives Journal concluded that humans are receiving “substantial non-food exposure,” and recommended further study of exposures from other sources of BPA including building products like PVC pipes.


[1] Dr. Frederick S. vom Saal, University of Missouri. Comments on NTP April 2008 Draft Report on Bisphenol A (BPA).

[2] “Precautionary Tale: BPA Ban On Horizon.” Plastics News. November 03, 2008.