LEED Buildings Rated Green ... and Often Toxic

A study gives LEED failing marks on indoor health and safety.

A new study from a health-research nonprofit blasts LEED for failing to protect against toxic indoor environments.

The study, released last week by the Connecticut-based Environment and Human Health, Inc., says that the voluntary rating system — the gold standard for green buildings everywhere — falsely presents its projects as bastions of health and safety, when it actually allows for all sorts of harmful stuff, whether pesticides in tap water or formaldehyde-laden particleboard. "Although the primary stated purposes of the Green Building Council are to promote both energy efficiency and human health," says John Wargo, a professor of risk analysis and environmental policy at Yale and the study's lead author, "even the Council’s most prestigious Platinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of the certified buildings."

The report's yet another blow to LEED and its nonprofit administrator the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which have become prime targets for environmental groups in recent years. The standard is seen as eco-lite and too industry-friendly. Some of the stiffest attacks come from energy conservationists, who say that LEED buildings don't live up to their own benchmark — a criticism borne out by the USGBC's internal research. A 2008 study found that one-fourth of freshly certified projects weren't conserving as much energy as their LEED seals indicate, and most weren't tracking energy consumption at all.

The Environment and Human Health report is focused less on energy performance than on the flesh and bones of the buildings themselves. It cites, for instance, substances common in building materials, like phthalates (used in floor and wall coverings); short-chain chlorinated paraffins (used in flame retardants); and perfluorinated chemicals (used in carpets and upholstery). All of these are listed as "chemicals of concern," according to the Environmental Protection Agency — and all of them are fair game under LEED.

In the realm of a voluntary rating system, do these violations really matter? As the study's authors point out, LEED is now law in many states and municipalities across the country, from San Francisco to Kentucky — which makes the program a public health issue. The report offers various suggestions for a healthier LEED like running tests for indoor air and water quality after people have moved in, docking credits for using hazardous substances, and filling the USGBC's top ranks with more medical professionals. (At the moment, there's just one formally trained doctor on the board of directors.) It also makes recommendations for the federal government to update its toxic materials database.

The USGBC's response: "There's validity in what these people are saying, and we want to work with them to improve LEED," says Scot Horst, senior vice president for LEED. At the same time, he dismisses any drastic measures. "LEED could say there should be no chemicals in any building and no energy used and no water and every building should give back water and energy," he tells us. "We could do all that, and no one would use the rating system. We can only take the market as far as it's willing to go." Sounds like those environmental groups are onto something, after all.

[Top two photos, of California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and City Center in Las Vegas via ArchDaily; bottom photo of One Bryant Park in New York via World Architecture News]

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  • Dragonfly78

    would be very interested to find out the long term effects of the
    "LEED" lighting in buildings and the damage it does to people’s eyes
    when they are required to strain with this new dependence on outdoor lighting through windows and LED light sources being the only source of interior lighting. I for one am
    surrounded by LED lighting and I have never had more problems
    sleeping, and for the first time in my life suffer from migraines.  I think that time will show just how bad this LEED is for people.

  • Scot Horst

    Tristan Roberts from Environmental Building News did a more balanced and thoughtful job of reporting on EHHI’s report than Fast Company. Please see his link in the first comment below. Those who are truly interested in this important subject should read that article.

    LEED is an action plan for environmental work through buildings and neighborhoods. It is not a report or even a statement of a perfect world. It is a way to define what green means. The point I made with the reporter -- which clearly was not heard -- was that if LEED were only a utopian vision then it would not be real. This is because utopia does not exist. Instead LEED is constantly updating and moving the market, pushing it and incentivizing it to be better. Always better.

    It is interesting to note that LEED Platinum projects to date achieve 78.5 percent of all Indoor Environmental Quality credits. And there are no Platinium projects that have achieved zero Indoor Environmental Quality Credits.

    Scot Horst
    Senior Vice President, LEED
    U.S. Green Building Council

  • Infomancer

    I definitely agree with the criticisms of LEED, although I don't think this means it's a horrible system. It certainly deserves credit for being the first of its kind in the US, and for being able to become so thoroughly ingrained in the industry. However, I think its progress has reached a stasis.

    In its early days, LEED did a fabulous job of bringing attention back to the issue of sustainability. At the time, many people felt it wasn't perfect, but had great potential. I believe this is still the case. Though the system has undergone several major revisions, it really hasn't changed much. To me, this is the problem.

    As someone who has worked with LEED for many years, I can say that I agree with those organizations that believe it is too "industry-friendly." Part of the reason for this may be the way the review process is set up - industry members review proposed changes.

    I believe, based on experience as a volunteer with the USGBC, that the organization has become too bogged down with its own bureaucracy, and needs to streamline in order to make real progress again. I do not think it is doomed, and don't think the rating system itself requires real structural change. Perhaps there simply needs to be a bigger differentiation between certification and Platinum.

    Given their status, they're in a position to move us forward. But they need to be willing to ruffle a few feathers along the way.

  • Brenda Be

    While it is useful to point out areas for improvement with organizations and systems such as LEED, Fast Company of all publications ought to be more balanced in their reporting. Industry acceptance of the LEED system has been slow and grudging. The system IS more difficult and costly at first until adopters have increased their education and experience with it, and even then certainly requires different and in some ways greater efforts than 'business as usual.' The system has many detractors for its supposed overly stringent requirements.

    Industry has developed many alternatives to LEED which are much weaker and easier for contractors and architects to use. To overly increase the stringency of LEED will simply lead to a greater resistance and less usage, as well as a flight toward these weaker, some would argue greenwashed, alternatives.

    LEED has responded to its own internal studies (which it should be applauded for conducting, rather than faulted for not passing with flying colors) of energy efficiency with *strengthened* standards on this area in future (now current) versions of is rating standards. It is a constantly evolving ratings system and will no doubt also increase it standards for indoor air quality in the future.

    As it stands, there are multiple points available for IAQ/IEQ measures, and some are required. To arbitrarily outlaw chemicals such as formaldehyde in a LEED building at this time is unrealistic as available alternatives in the areas of plywood, OSB, other engineered woods including LVL's, and cabinets, are at cost premiums of 30% to 100% over standard alternatives, and in some cases are very difficult to acquire (at any price) in some markets.

    This is at a time when LEED is already under fire and resistance for its certified wood standards and rainforest wood standards, and at a very difficult time in the economy and particularly, in the building industry. An unbalanced article such as this one is truly not only poor journalism but questionable environmentalism as well.

    Brenda Be

  • Atelier tectonic

    LEED is an excellent system. It will take more time for USGBC to be able to implement health oriented points that can further there ultimate goal; a healthy happy planet.

    It is still difficult to sell a LEED building, the ROI is not certain yet. Also Health benefits quantified and referenced to design is still in its infancy. It will take much time to be able to implement building codes that cover physical and mental health well being.

    All in all, Environmental groups are doing a good job; COMPLAIN, But realize you should also enter the dialogue in a constructive way.


    atelier tectonic

  • Tristan Roberts

    This report is getting some press for being critical of LEED, but it might be better titled "Federal Inaction Stands in the Way of Green Building." Much of the report details chemicals that are commonly found in our buildings, that are unsafe, and that EPA and TSCA do nothing about. Much of LEED is health-focused (much more than the report gives it credit for, as I discuss in my BuildingGreen.com article on it (link below), but LEED can only lead the market so far if the building products industry isn't being pushed enough from below.

    – Tristan Roberts

  • Gary Hitesman

     Describe what you mean by "being pushed enough from below." As architects who can specify the material and build client support, the General Contractor and building suppliers themselves are waging battles over budget, project profit, and using the dreaded change order as a bludgeoning tool. Add in the uncontrollable costs of what interest loans are operating at and pushing from below appears quaint, if not out-of-touch.  Let's not throw out a good idea. But really, if I want a commission and repeat business, I'm not going to be pushing LEED anymore than I will speak out when I'm doing construction observation or participating in value engineering exercises.
    LEED is too eager to remain viable and stay sustainable. It's a great business model but also demonstrates why being zero carbon based and environmentally friendly is anti-capitalistic. In the end, the rating system loses integrity. And without that, so goes the program. Catch-22?