The recent media release pointing to a truce between the US Green Building Council and the American Chemistry Council would have been greeted with confusion if not dismay by many people in the sustainable property industry who have followed this particular front in the green wars.

Had the powerful chemicals industry, led by the PVC and Pals outfit, won? We know they’ve won part of the war in Australia with many respectable voices in the green building movement citing pragmatism, jobs and economics in their support for PVC, ignoring that there are alternative products available in the market.

The news from Bill Walsh’s Healthy Building Network confirmed fears. The Chemical Comancheros were playing with English again, borrowing from George Orwell and conflating risk and hazard.

Bill Walsh wasn’t fooled. Neither was Paula Melton in Environmental Building News.

Melton said the announcement looked “more like a headline from BuildingGreen’s April Fool’s issue than one from an official press release: “USGBC and ACC to Work Together to Advance LEED.” Here’s what the ACC told her:

“Obviously, we had some concerns with LEED v4 and the building materials credits,” Anne Kolton, ACC’s vice president of communications, told EBN. (For background, see Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: BuildingGreen Checks the Facts.) While trying to work with USGBC on these concerns, she relates, “we started to discover over time that they have certain areas of expertise – sustainability and green building – and we have certain areas of expertise – life-cycle analysis, risk-based analysis, and the efficacy and durability of building materials. We wanted to work together to bring those two different sets of expertise to the table.”

Read the full story here

The bone of contention is the different meaning of “risk” and “hazard”.

The ACC prefers risk. It’s softer. Walsh said in a Healthy Building News newsletter:

The risk-based approach being advocated by the ACC is the foundation of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the failed federal law which, in its almost 40 years of existence, has resulted in restrictions on only five of the more than 80,000 chemicals used in commerce.

By contrast, the hazard-based approach adopted in the LEED v4 Materials Disclosure and Optimisation credit is the foundation of the most successful healthy materials initiatives: from the Living Building Challenge, to the Perkins+Will precautionary list, to Google’s healthy materials program. It is the approach taken by health care industry leader Kaiser Permanente in deciding to purchase products that do not contain chemical antimicrobials or flame retardants.

It is the approach taken by Walmart and other big box retailers who are requiring that suppliers remove certain hazardous chemicals from consumer products. The Health Product Declaration takes a hazard-based approach, as does the Pharos Project, GreenScreen, Declare and Cradle to Cradle.

The new deal involves working on a “supply-chain optimisation working group” to hammer out future guidance on LEED, not changing the current LEED v4 credits, but looking to a “future version of LEED”.

Meanwhile attacks forcing government agencies to restrict use of LEED as a rating tool continue.

  • See Attacks on LEED Continue in House Spending Bill. Asked by EBN whether ACC would cease its anti-LEED lobbying in federal and state governments, Kolton replied, “Competition in the marketplace is a good thing for everyone” and said ACC would continue to support performance-driven, consensus-based rating systems, but she added, “This new initiative allows ACC and our members to turn our attention and resources to constructively working with USGBC.”

Industry design leaders were “cautiously optimistic”.

Bill Walsh told EBN it was “Groundhog Day.”

“Once again, the ACC is ushered into the tent as if we are unaware of their strategy once inside. Have we already forgotten that they and their member companies launched a vicious attack on the USGBC when they didn’t get their way? What’s different today?” Walsh said he is concerned that the new agreement will ultimately “put chemical-industry interests ahead of sound, health-based policies”.

In his own newsletter for Healthy Building News Walsh said the supply chain optimisation working group is not a new initiative.

It was announced previously in Spring 2013 in a published call for working group members, and has been under discussion since the USGBC’s last minute insertion of the “supply chain optimisation” credit pathway in LEED v4 at the behest of the chemical industry. The working group never achieved liftoff, it appears, because the ACC left the table to wage its war on LEED.

The weighting towards risk assessment instead of hazard is “unequivocally negative for LEED”, Walsh said.

To understand what will be lost if the ACC risk-assessment paradigm is embedded in LEED, one does not need to become expert on the finer distinctions between risk-based and hazard-based approaches. Just consider formaldehyde.

LEED’s most transformative material credit to date used a hazard-based approach to encourage the use of no added formaldehyde products. This credit incentivised green chemistry research, spurred the creation of new businesses and gave established manufacturers a means to differentiate their products from overseas competition. Most importantly, it is driving dramatically reduced formaldehyde emissions across the board: for building occupants, construction workers, manufacturing workers and the communities where engineered wood products are made.

Walsh says that in 1992 the State of California found there was no safe level for formaldehyde to preclude cancer. The National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program found that formaldehyde is a “known human carcinogen.”

The ACC responded with an Orwellian press release asserting: “The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments [emphasis added].”

If the ACC’s risk-based standard had been in effect, the LEED formaldehyde credits never would have seen the light of day. The risk-based approach being advocated by the ACC is the foundation of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the failed federal law which, in its almost 40 years of existence, has resulted in restrictions on only five of the more than 80,000 chemicals used in commerce. Is this the kind of result we want to see from “greater consideration” of risk-assessment in LEED?

The joint USGBC/ACC announcement has been widely portrayed as a “truce.”  Perhaps it is so intended. Our perspective is that it costs the ACC nothing to cease fire this fall when few bills – especially anti-green bills – are likely to advance during election season. The costs to the green building movement will be high if this initiative results in surrender to the risk-based paradigm that fails to protect human health, and undermines the growing use of successful hazard-based approaches to healthy building.

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  1. Yes, continual stirring of passions required.. Your publication does stir and promote informed and when needed, disruptive pieces across shared built and natural environments issues. Well done to all of your team.

  2. Hmmmm…I dont believe we can prejudge this scenario. The fact is the way LEED has dealt with chemicals is outmoded and inaccurate. When you track the ‘hazard reduction’approach across the full life cycle for all alternative products it is unworkable…the product industry of today would disappear. Done properly- and by that I mean based on a full “Precautionary Principle’ approach, the ‘Risk Assessment’ approach is the only logical way forward. It is what underpins Global GreenTag’s approach to human and ecotoxicity assessment.

    It is the only approach that means that burden shifting does not occur…e.g. LEED and LBC exclude products with added formaldehyde (LBC has a temporary exclusion of this requirement that recognises the pragmatics of this example). A raft of new products arose that use PUR based binders- all hailed as ‘healthy formaldedhyde free’ products. But at the factory the Isocyanate based components of these materials pose major health risks to workers. A GreenTag whole of life risk assessment based approach will review the OH&S conditions, safety & induction procedures, protective equipment, worker chemical exposure testing, site audits and management systems covering this risk before concluding any assessment. The same process would be involved for formaldehyde based products and provided they were rated at E0 or E00 (i.e. close to natural wood levels) both products would be passed. Even the new ranges of bio-based binders may have toxic components or stages before they become benign polymers. Until they are studied and proper risk analysis completed- no assessment or claims to be better health or environmentally is valid.

    Simplistic ‘this is better than that’ approaches have no place in sustainability today. Too often they can(and have been) shown to lead to counter-intuitive and incorrect outcomes.

    As long as a black and white approach is taken to health and environmental hazard reduction we will continue to get it wrong. What we need to do is make sure we use the best available knowledge globally (not just specific sometimes questionable databases) to do whole of life risk assessment based product analysis. The answers are sometimes very surprising.

  3. It seems such a short time ago that you hosted the ‘Last Supper’ with Jerry Yudelson, now of Green Globes and anti LEED campaigner, at Bambini Trust. Who can you trust, in these days of corporate greenwash solutions?

    You hosted the ‘high end’ culinary indulgence in the wild west for a cadre of high end developers and related consulting Comancheros. Greed in the name of green continues apace. Miopic self serving short tendencies need to be eradicated in interests and wellbeing of committed true souls.

    Perhaps time to embrace socially equatable solutions within environments to help drive transformative changes, in lieu of organised commercially orientated and self serving group interests and promote new paradigms?

    Our global home requires social, environmental and economic solutions by empowering local communities toward equitable and just solutions through technological assiatance (via guiding and shared political frameworks).

    1. Some fall by the wayside, some never get started, but for these there are also thousands of committed people working tirelessly and passionately to help transform the places and people around them. Partly we’re here for them. Primarily we’re a business publication and our “mission” is to help transform the built environment by proving the business and political case for sustainability and saving the planet. That means we are absolutely about the “high end”, the higher the better. But of course we “get” that change has to come from the ground up too. You will find mountains of stories on social sustainability, community transformation and new paradigms. Just read beyond the high end events you mention (four in all now, among 5000 articles in five years). I think we need more events, they clearly stir the passions.