Risky Business: Undermining the LEED Material Credit

Tom Lent - May 25, 2016

They did it again. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has pushed another greenwashing credit option into LEED. The new Building Material Human Hazard & Exposure Assessment Pilot Credit developed “by USGBC in conjunction with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and its members,”[1] represents perhaps the most audacious effort to date by the ACC to neutralize LEED’s leadership in improving material health in building products.

The Credit ignores some of the highest concern chemical hazards (including neurotoxicants, endocrine disruptors and persistent bioaccumulative toxicants). It allows the manufacturer to make up their own proprietary risk assessment protocol for the remaining health endpoints, ignore data gaps and uncertainties, and bury the whole thing in an undisclosed black box.  The credit requires just two manufacturers to go through this exercise for a total of five products to get the LEED point.[2]

It is being touted as a contribution to USGBC’s ultimate aim for project teams to have “a full and complete picture of building materials and products.”[3] The reality is that the credit language blocks that full and complete picture by disclosing only to Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), which administers the LEED technical reviews. There is no public disclosure of contents or of the hazard or exposure or risk assessment.

This new credit is a disaster for efforts to move toward inherently safer products. It gives a facade of legitimacy to a highly controversial risk assessment process favored by the chemical industry. With no standard behind it and no public scrutiny of contents or analysis allowed, the credit is an invitation to greenwash products rather than to improve them. Introduction of this credit will only confuse the market and undermine the harmonization work that the USGBC has supported.[4]

A measured approach to bringing exposure information to the table to inform prioritization of hazard avoidance is strongly needed. This Credit does the opposite, using risk assessment as an excuse to hide contents and hazards and exposures rather than to help prioritize them. For a full review of the credit see my blog in the Signal: ACC Pits Risk Assessment Against Right to Know in New LEED Credit.

The Pattern: This marks another success for the ACC in its continuing campaign to neutralize the LEED system’s leadership efforts to reward product content disclosure and hazard avoidance. Ever since LEED v4 was released with the groundbreaking Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Material Ingredients credit, the ACC has been seeking to undermine the market power of this credit. Here’s a step-by-step guide through their playbook thus far:

Step 1: Government attacks: ACC efforts were initially focused on forcing the USGBC to eliminate the credit with attacks on the whole LEED system in Congress and statehouses around the country[5]. While they did not succeed in convincing the USGBC to take down the credit, these concerted attacks did force open the door for the ACC to introduce competing credit pathways into the LEED system to pull industry attention away from the original credit intent.

Step 2: Shrinking supply chain: The first ACC success was the launch of the guidance Supply Chain Optimization Option, currently in a Pilot. This third option to the Material Ingredient Credit, originally intended to engage the whole supply chain in reducing use and exposure to hazardous chemicals, was successfully watered down to the point where a product manufacturer can gain points in LEED simply by undertaking basic good practice safety systems in their facilities without disclosing or avoiding any hazardous contents in their product. 

Step 3: Diluting disclosure: Next the ACC took aim directly at the Material Ingredient Reporting Option that rewards disclosure of product contents. This credit provides a Manufacturer Inventory option that allowed withholding of content identity for trade secrets only if they were subjected to a GreenScreen assessment and the resulting Benchmark disclosed.[6]  In April, the ACC successfully jammed through new language in the Material Ingredient credit that set up a parallel path that allows the manufacturer to avoid the GreenScreen assessment in favor of just disclosing the GHS (Globally Harmonized System) hazard categorization, which in many cases is already required by law. Furthermore, the GHS system misses key health concerns, such as endocrine disruption and PBTs, and does not penalize data gaps.[7]

Step 4: Rationalizing risk: The latest move may be their most egregious greenwash move yet. The Building Material Human Hazard & Exposure Assessment Credit they designed and pushed in to  LEED sounds good at first glance. A validated hazard and exposure assessment could give designers the information they need to prioritize the avoidance of hazards to which occupants are most exposed, and address nagging questions about what is released from products. Unfortunately, that is not what the ACC’s Risk Credit does. As described above, and in more detail in our Signal blog: ACC Pits Risk Assessment Against Right to Know in New LEED Credit, The ACC Risk Credit creates a murky, ill-defined assessment process ripe for abuse and effectively keeps all information about product contents, their hazards, and the potential for exposure out of the hands of design teams.

Step 5: Knowledge held hostage: Almost a year ago, the USGBC briefly released an important document. “Better Building Materials: Understanding Human Health and Environmental Attributes” was a guidebook envisioned to “define the core information that building project teams need to know to understand the consequences of building materials for human health and the environment.”  The 215-page document was the fruit of a yearlong effort by USGBC staff and Materials Research Fellows funded by a grant from the Google Foundation to promote healthy buildings. The document written by experts from UMass Lowell and UC Berkeley, provided a curriculum for project teams to learn the rationale and practice behind the Material Ingredient credits and the movement to improve the inherent safety of the products with which we build our buildings.

That document should be a resource for all of us providing a valuable background and context for an informed discussion of issues of exposure and risk and their role in informing hazard avoidance decision making. But the document was withdrawn hours after its release. There remains no public explanation for who called for its withdrawal or why, and no public commitment to its release. Given the ACC’s success in forcing through this series of credit changes to undermine the material ingredient credit, we can only assume that the ACC is behind the loss of this valuable resource as well.

Keeping the LEED Credit on track: The USGBC has reiterated its goal “that project teams have a full and complete picture of building materials and products.”[8] The ACC, however, is successfully moving LEED in the opposite direction. The ACC has now created three different pathways for manufacturers who want to contribute to LEED credits while avoiding their responsibility to users to acknowledge the contents of their products and their hazards. They are doing this under the guise of developing “a full understanding of hazard and exposure”[9] while designing credits that deny users access to all content, hazard and exposure information.  In so doing, the ACC is effectively using LEED to confuse the marketplace and burden users with more confusing options while refusing them key data for informed decision making. This de-legitimizes the process and takes the leadership out of LEED in material health.

Is this the end of the usefulness of the LEED Material Ingredient Credit? Not yet. There are still meaningful pathways remaining in it. See the box Avoiding ACC greenwash for guidelines on what to look for in products claiming LEED compliance. The burden now lies with users to sort through product offerings and only reward those manufacturers who do meaningful disclosure and chemical hazard avoidance.  Communicate with your manufacturers rep to let them know what you will accept. And let the USGBC know that you care about what is happening to this credit.

Avoiding ACC Greenwash in the LEED Material Ingredient Credit

Despite the ACC’s successful efforts to water down the credit, there are still meaningful pathways within the credit requirements that will actually result in healthier buildings instead of greenwash. When specifying products, follow these guidelines:

  • Option 1 - Material Ingredient Reporting (1 point):
    • Avoid products that provide only a Manufacturer Inventory.
    • Specify products that use the Health Product Declaration to disclose contents and hazards
    • OR that are certified under one of the listed programs (Cradle to Cradle, Declare, or e3).
  • Option 2 - Material Ingredient Optimization (1 point):
    • Avoid products claiming the International Alternative Compliance Path.
    • Specify products assessed using the GreenScreen List Translator or Benchmark approach
    • OR that are Cradle to Cradle certified.  
  • Option 3 - Product Manufacturer Supply Chain Optimization (1 point):
    • Avoid products claiming this option entirely. The total credit maximum is two points and only the above Option 1 & 2 pathways will reliably result in significant disclosure and/or improvements in product chemistry.  
  • Risk Assessment Pilot:
    • Avoid products claiming compliance with the new Risk Pilot entirely.

Footnotes

[2] Compare this to twenty product requirement of the Material Inventory Credit Reporting Option or the 25% of cost requirement of the Optimization Option. 

[5] The HBN News outlined the beginnings of the ACC led attack in Congress to undermine the US General Services Administration (GSA) and Department of Defense DoD) use of LEED. A Vinyl conference slideshow outlined the “battle plan” of the chemical industry against LEED.  Attacks in South Carolina and Ohio typified efforts in friendly statehouses that followed efforts less than satisfying results  in the ACC’s  GSA and DoD efforts.

[6] The GreenScreen  for Safer Chemicals s a method for benchmarking the level of hazard of a chemical substance.  It is used as a prioritization tool for redesigning materials and products using inherently safer chemistry. 

[7] The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is a United Nations developed standard primarily designed for harmonizing regulatory requirements for hazard communication in the workplace. The GHS is not designed as a comprehensive assessment of all hazards. The GHS does not address Endocrine activity, Neurotoxicity, Skin corrosivity, Skin sensitization, Aquatic toxicity and Persistent bioaccumulative toxicity.


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