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LEED Buildings Rated Green ... and Often Toxic

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

LEED Buildings Rated Green ... and Often Toxic

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]