The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system is the most popular green building certification system in the world. In order to achieve LEED certification, a builder must focus on several key areas including Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Innovation and Design. However, a new report suggests that one very important area is missing — human health.
In the report conducted by Environment and Human Health, Inc (EHHI), the authors applaud the USGBC for encouraging improved energy efficiency but they say more focus needs to be given to human health issues. Of course part of the Indoor Environmental Quality section covers some human health issues, but the study notes that LEED Platinum, the highest LEED certification level, can be achieved without earning a single point in the category.
EHHI’s The Green Building Debate: LEED Certification Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health (PDF) identifies several health threats that are overlooked by the LEED rating system. These health threats fall into two different categories: indoor air quality and drinking water. The use of artificial turf was also identified as a third health threat but is in a category of its own.
The study has listed five indoor air quality health threats that have been neglected in the LEED rating system — formaldehyde, tobacco smoke, particulates, pesticides and flame retardants.
If you are designing a building to LEED specs, you can include a room within the building for smoking but the room must have a separate heating and ventilation system that removes the smoke from the building. However the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) states that ventilation systems cannot completely remove secondhand smoke from the atmosphere.
ASHRAE has even adopted a no indoor smoking policy because although a well-designed ventilation system can reduce the exposure to secondhand smoke, it will not completely eliminate the chance for exposure. This puts all employees in the building at risk.
EHHI’s concerns with drinking water include plastics, bisphenol-A (BPA), PVC and phthalates, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). While a building can earn points for its water management systems, there is nothing in place to address the quality of the water used in LEED certified buildings.
The use of artificial turf is also problematic. Although artificial turf has come a long way since the 1970s from an aesthetics standpoint, it is still toxic. Many types of artificial turf use recycled rubber tires (crumb rubber) and this can cause a multitude of health problems. EHHI’s analysis of the crumb rubber shows that it contains a bevy of chemicals including known carcinogens, neurotoxicants, and suspected endocrine disruptors.
Artificial turf also adds to the heat island effect, is not biodegradable, and disposing it at the end of its useful life can be difficult at best. However, artificial turf is water efficient and thus can earn a LEED registered project up to four points in the Water Efficiency category as well as additional points in Materials and Resources and Innovation in Design.
Overall, EHHI’s concern is that consumers will translate the term LEED certified into healthy for humans and that isn’t always the case. The organization provides several recommendations for LEED reform: simplify the scoring system, diversify certification categories, include more health and environmental science experts on the USGBC board, increase the use of safe chemicals, implement minimum health protective requirements, performance data transparency, indoor air quality testing, using indoor pesticides only as a last resort, and encouraging federal testing of chemicals in building products.
I am a fan of the USGBC’s LEED rating systems. They are helping create more energy-efficient buildings, which will mitigate the economic and environmental crises. However, the data presented in this report is thought-provoking at the very least. If the LEED rating system could maintain its strong support of energy efficiency while adding in equal support for human health, as consumers we would then be able to interpret LEED certified as healthy for the environment and for humans.
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