Toxic Products, The Really Bad Guys and the Good Guys

Reality Check

I’m still haunted by the CNN report about Mossville, Louisiana.  Here’s the bullet:  A small economically-challenged town is surrounded by 14 chemical manufacturers – mostly chemicals used to manufacture plastics.  To say that this is a cancer cluster is to put it mildly.  In this report, a chemist reports her findings, verified by a peer reviewer, and is able to trace specific dioxin chemical signatures from the residents blood samples back to specific manufacturers.  The result:  After decades of struggle, the local, state and federal governments have done nothing to protect the health of the residents.  There is more testing under way and a possible offer of health care coverage, but what about prevention?  Wouldn’t it make sense to prevent this health care crisis for future generations?

FYI:  Dioxin is a by-product of plastics manufacturing and is one of the most toxic substances known to science – in very tiny quantities.  The good people of Mossville have three times the level of dioxin in their blood compared to the general American population, and the US EPA reports that there is no known safe level of exposure.  Since dioxin can be found in the blood of the general population, that makes this more than just a “Mossville issue”.

The Really Bad Guys

It is so clear to me that this is so wrong.  But, you ask, why don’t these people just move? These people have lived in this community for many generations.  And, prior to the chemical companies moving into the neighborhood in the 1940s, affected families report no cancer in their health histories.  After the chemical plants moved in, up to 80% of some families have some form of cancer.  Why should they have to leave their heritage?  And, many simply could not afford to do so.  Would you buy their homes?

The Good Guys

Having absolutely nothing to do with Mossville, Louisiana, along comes the U.S. Green Building Council and the LEED Rating System – an effort to raise our building standards to a higher level of sustainability, addressing environmental, social equity and human health issues in the built environment.   Among the many credits in five categories are a whole host of credits, and synergies between credits, that address human health in many different ways.

I have been known to endorse the LEED Rating System and I serve as their Green Schools Committee Chair for the New York Upstate Chapter.  But, I have also been known to criticize LEED for not addressing all of the issues concerning toxic building products.  However, to set the record straight, many years ago, when they were developing LEED for Commercial Interiors, they were going to award a credit for PVC(vinyl)-avoidance (one of many toxic product problems).  But, as I understand it from the rumor mill, the vinyl industry threatened to sue them out of existence  if they did.  So, do you continue with your other good work, or do you let one industry force you into extinction?  All of us purists would love to see them fight the good fight – but are we prepared for the consequences?

Coming to the point

In a recent report, a non-profit called Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) concluded that well-recognized hazardous chemicals exist in building products and that LEED standards are insufficient to protect human health.  As I glanced through the EHHI web site, it looks like they’re doing some really good work – they look like “Good Guys”.

I need to take a breath here.  I endorse the LEED rating system, but I have been critical of it because of this point. There are many building products that I will advise my clients not to use, even though that recommendation has nothing to do with a LEED point.  It has everything to do with my concern to protect the health of the people who occupy the space I design.  I urge my fellow design professionals do the same.

So I agree with the report – but only to a certain extent.  Their findings do not demonstrate a deep understanding of the LEED rating system.  There is much more to providing good indoor air quality than avoiding toxic products, and many of those issues are addressed in other LEED credits.  The US Green Building Council has immediately taken the high road and invited the EHHI to become part of their consensus-building process to make the LEED rating system better in the future.  I look forward to LEED taking a more aggressive position against toxic building products.

Getting even closer to the point

Why are we expecting a non-profit organization who developed a voluntary green building rating system to fix the problem of toxins in building products?  And, why are the “Good Guys” persecuting the “Good Guys”?   Let’s focus more attention on the really bad guys. If there are well-recognized hazardous chemicals in building products, why hasn’t our government acted to protect our health?  We have only to look at Mossville, Louisiana for an answer.