NY Times Op Eds Show Why LEED Chemical Credits Are Needed

Bill Walsh - August 28, 2012

This past Sunday's New York Times Week In Review contained two important opinion editorials that underscore both the need for the proposed LEED credits on chemical disclosure and avoidance, and why these proposals have earned the US Green Building Council (USGBC) such vicious attacks from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the trade association of the chemical industry.

A new study from the peer reviewed journal Endocrinology measuring low dose impacts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals triggered Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to write: The study is devastating for the chemical industry. . . . . the opposition to endocrine disruptors is led by toxicologists, endocrinologists, urologists and pediatricians. These are serious scientists, yet they don't often have the ear of politicians or journalists.

The new study in Endocrinology focuses on Bisphenol-A, a chemical widely used in building products such as epoxy-based caulks, resins and coatings. Other endocrine-disrupting chemicals include halogenated flame-retardants, phthalates used in flexible vinyl, and dioxin, a waste product of chlorinated plastics such as PVC. These are the types of chemicals that would likely be targeted for disclosure and avoidance in the proposed LEED credits.

According to one of the nation's foremost authorities on endocrine-disrupting chemicals: "Hundreds of scientific studies have demonstrated endocrine impairment in the central nervous system, the immune and metabolic systems, and many glands and organs."[1] (emphasis added). That's why another op-ed in last Sunday's Times' caught my interest.

"What has happened to the modern immune system?" asks Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a former science writer for the Christian Science Monitor in an op-ed entitled An Immune Disorder at the Root of Autism. The author, whose new book, An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases, will be released next month, summarizes recent science on autism this way: So here's the short of it: At least a subset of autism - perhaps one-third, and very likely more - looks like a type of inflammatory disease. And it begins in the womb . . . It starts with what scientists call immune dysregulation.

The author notes that inflammatory diseases and immune system disorders have been increasing for the past 60 years. His investigation into potential explanations has thus far focused on germ theory, but it is striking that this is the same time period that the uses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in manufacturing have exploded. We know that endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect the immune and metabolic systems; they cross the placenta, and have been documented in umbilical cord blood of newborns.[2] While other factors also influence development of the immune system, this certainly qualifies as an early warning that demands aggressive investigation and precautionary measures.

This is especially true in the case of building products and furnishings, where independent studies demonstrate that endocrine disrupting flame retardants do not provide additional safeguards against fire hazards, prompting the Governor of California to call for a sweeping overhaul of the state's flammability standards which all but mandate their use. LEED should be amended to provide immediate incentives for the use of safer alternatives nationwide.

Kristof goes on to characterize the chemical industry's response to this information in terms that anyone familiar with the ACC attack on the USGBC will understand:. . . following the script of Big Tobacco a generation ago, Big Chem has, so far, blocked any serious regulation of these endocrine disruptors. . . . .The challenge is that they involve complex science and considerable uncertainty, and the chemical companies - like the tobacco companies before them - create financial incentives to encourage politicians to sit on the fence. So nothing happens.

But something is happening in the green building industry. Here, Big Chem's heavy handed Big Tobacco tactics come across as a relic from the 1960's - a time when the impacts of chemical exposures were rarely studied, and cigarette ads featured doctors.[3] Twenty-first century companies are moving on, embracing reasonable customer demand for disclosure of chemicals used in their products, and aggressively researching ways to avoid bringing potentially harmful toxics into the built environment. That's why the proposed LEED credits have such widespread support among USGBC members, to whom they appear to be modest and reasonable steps to distance themselves from the Mad Men of Big Chem.


[2] The Critical Windows of Development Project of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) describes and references the literature on the prenatal origins of endocrine disruption through exposure to chemicals in the womb http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/prenatal.criticalwindows.overview.php

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