USGBC, Walmart Consider Chemicals of Concern to Human Health

A couple of interesting things have happened the last few months in the green-building world revolving around addressing the reduction of harmful chemicals in our environment.

The first was the recent vote and approval by the USGBC membership on LEED v4. This is the new rating system from the U.S. Green Building Council that is the next generation green-building certification replacing LEED 2009. Notably absent from the balloted rating system is a credit involving the reduction of harmful chemicals. By harmful chemicals we’re talking about some of the nasty ones that we’ve known for a long time cause health issues in humans, including PVCs, brominated or halogenated flame retardants, and phthalates.

During the draft review period of the LEED v4 rating system, inclusion of a credit aimed at reducing harmful chemicals in our buildings was considered but ultimately tossed out because of industry pressure. Instead, a pilot credit was allowed for use in LEED certifications for a short time but is now closed. Pilot credits are the USGBC’s proving ground for testing out new credits and concepts. With the advent of LEED v4, this is now the second time a credit promoting the reduction of harmful chemicals has been proposed and removed from discussion; the first time was with the draft versions of the current LEED 2009. When a similar credit was proposed with LEED 2009 it raised such waves through the industry trade groups that it was effectively squashed.

The second interesting thing is the announcement by Walmart of a new policy regarding sustainable chemistry in consumables. Effectively Walmart is telling its suppliers they need to reduce 10 particularly nasty chemicals in the items that Walmart sells if they want to have shelf space at the store. Because Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, people stand up and listen to what it has to say.

Frankly, this is an industry game changer and puts the wheels into motion regulating harmful chemicals on a large scale—something USGBC tried but has been unable to do for more than six years. It’s interesting what can happen when a company of that breadth and scale decides it wants to do something meaningful. The truth is Walmart carries the biggest stick and companies want to do business with the retailer so badly that if they have to make their widgets without 10 chemicals they will figure out a way to make it happen. The good thing for the rest of the consumers in the world who don’t shop at Walmart is that there is a big trickle-down effect: Makers of widgets generally don’t make them two different ways. Thus begins the removal of these chemicals across the board.

USGBC had several opportunities to be a leader in this realm but ultimately it took a retailer with a big enough influence to put the brakes on and say, “we’re not going to do this anymore”. Kudos to Walmart.

About the Author

Nathan M. Gillette
Nathan M. Gillette, AIA, LEED AP O+M, CEM, is director of Natura Architectural Consulting, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a retrofit editorial advisor. He works with clients to successfully implement and manage energy efficiency and sustainability projects.

1 Comment on "USGBC, Walmart Consider Chemicals of Concern to Human Health"

  1. Ujjval Vyas, Ph.D., J.D. | November 21, 2013 at 12:41 am |

    The thinking around chemicals of concern is always puzzling to me, especially when it comes to claims that architects will be dealing with health issues in buildings. The naive self-righteousness of many in this area is rather sweet to see. Architects have no training in any of the serious sciences, medical, toxicological or other areas and yet are ready to advocate against all kinds of things. One often wonders why they don’t advocate for more math or science requirements in their education. Frankly a lot more statistics would also help so they had at least some sense to tell when studies were silly or inadequate or highly biased in the literature around chemicals of concern. But maybe that takes up too much time and it is easier to read the Healthy Building Network’s activist harangues as informed. After all, we all know that the MMR vaccine causes the rise in autism, right?

    The core dilemma here is that much of this bravado against certain chemicals is based on the precautionary principle and a lack of any serious knowledge of chemistry, risk, or health. Dose response, hormesis, an actual commitment to ethics regarding the benefits of chemicals is far beyond the kenning of these simple solutions. I provide only one important example to show that neither the USGBC nor architects have any idea what they are talking about when they attempt to pick and choose certain chemicals to eliminate on the basis of often highly questionable toxicological analysis. By every account, architects should stop the use of fuel cells, solar panels, and wind turbines for any project. All three of these “green” solutions use materials and create wastes as part of the life-cycle that are far, far worse than anything that PVC and the other chemicals referred to here pose at the margins. In fact, the use of the precautionary principle directly eliminates the use of these green darlings. Odd this is never mentioned and the common inability to recognize the core ethical failure evident in this level of inconsistency is the saddest part. Selective reasoning, selective demonization, selective amnesia, does not make very good sense when one is actually trying to solve problems instead of pontificate.

    Walmart, usually couched as the hated retailer of oppression by the green advocates, is suddenly a friend when it uses power to force something that is favored by the green advocates. Walmart’s marketing team is giving high-fives all around to see that their opponents are so easy to win over and are now part of the constituency that will help prevent any further brand damage.

    Blind advocacy for naive views rarely gets anything accomplished of value except to make romantic dreamers feel good about their own view and make money for those that line up to take advantage of the silliness (can anyone say UL and EPDs or HPDs). Sustainability is much, much, harder than this and requires a seriousness that if too often lacking which is shown in spades by much of the current discussion surrounding chemicals of concern. If architects want to take on the health impacts of their buildings, maybe they should stop looking for simple check-mark proxy solutions.

    I am sure there are clients who fall for letting the architect or sustainability consultant use this kind of thinking and is often found in the public sector where unsophisticated clients spend other people’s money on good intentions with little concern for facing the consequences of failure. But any licensed professional should know better than to confuse his own personal views and activist agenda for professional judgment which requires objectivity and full disclosure to the client of all the costs, benefits and risks involved in any material decisions.

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