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New Orleans Citybusiness
April 5, 2004
House of Ill Dispute
Greenpeace takes healthy building campaign to vinyl chloride industry's backyard
By Megan Kamerick
John Passacantando notes the American flag hanging on a house under construction by the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
It flies near a banner proclaiming the home near North Prieur and Music streets to be free of polyvinyl chloride.
"Americaningenuity is better than that," said Passacantando, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Greenpeace, which is funding the house. "There is no reason mankind should be producing vinyl chloride in this world."
PVC is the most common plastic product used in construction. It is also toxic to dispose of and to make, he said, which is why Greenpeace wanted to build a PVC-free house.
The group's choice of location is no accident. Louisiana is home to the largest concentration of vinyl producers in the country, according to Greenpeace, which has been protesting its production here since 1994. The environmental group sees the Habitat house as a shot across the bow of the vinyl industry, Passacantando said.
The construction site has become a focal point for environmental health activists. A delegation from New York came to Louisiana last week to show its support for the project and announce a cross-state collaboration against CertainTeed Corp., a vinyl manufacturer based in Valley Forge, Pa. CertainTeed has a facility near Mossville and is building another plant in Buffalo, N.Y.
Mike Schade, executive director of the Citizens Environmental Health Network, said his New York-based group had been planning a Mossville trip to meet with residents and activists.
"When we learned Greenpeace was building a PVC-free house we thought that was a nice tie-in," Schade said.
Some residents of Mossville, a predominately African-American town near Lake Charles, have relocated and more want to relocate because of pollution concerns from four polyvinyl chloride facilities.
Edgar Mouton, a Mossville resident, came to the Habitat site recently to check out the construction.
"I wanted to show my support and take back the message that they can build homes without vinyl," he said.
Schade said his group would like to see CertainTeed phase out production of PVC products and phase in other materials like the ones in the Greenpeace house. "We commend Greenpeace and Habitat for proving that safe and cost-effective alternatives to vinyl exist," he said.
The siding on the house will be Hardiplank, a fiber cement mix that looks like wood. The team is using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene and cast iron for pipes. The wood on the steps has been treated with alkaline copper quaternary preservative technology, an alternative to arsenic. Greenpeace wanted wood for the frame to come from sustainable harvesting techniques, said Jim Pate, executive director of New Orleans Area Habitat For Humanity.
"We've been tree farming in the South for 30 years. We were already doing that," he said.
Vinyl chloride, a colorless flammable gas that goes into making PVC, is a known human carcinogen, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. People who breathe vinyl chloride for long periods of time can have permanent liver damage, immune reactions, nerve damage and liver cancer, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Vinyl products also tend to smolder long before they burn, releasing toxic fumes in fires, according to a study from Tufts University, "The Economics of Phasing Out PVC."
By funding the Habitat house, environmentalists hope to send a message to the vinyl industry's biggest customer base: construction. Habitat is the 14th-largest homebuilder in the world, Passacantando said, and PVC is prevalent in construction materials such as siding and pipes.
The strategy has drawn the ire of the Vinyl Institute based in Arlington, Va., which is the main trade group for vinyl manufacturers. VI officials sent a letter to Habitat International's President Millard Fuller accusing Greenpeace and the Healthy Building Network of "exploiting the humanitarian ideals and works of Habitat for Humanity."
The Institute has worked with Habitat since 1995 and formed Vinyl Partners for Humanity, which made a five-year, $1 million commitment to Habitat for Humanity in Louisiana. President Tim Burns said the letter pointed out his group's long-standing commitment to Habitat.
"Our concern with what Greenpeace was putting out was that they were talking about what they were not building with and we think that violates the spirit of Habitat," Burns said. "Habitat doesn't attack people."
One of the goals of the Habitat project is to prove that alternative building materials can be affordable.
"The way to beat the vinyl industry is to have everyone stop using their products," Passacantando said. "This is the crack in that armor."
The goal is to stay within Habitat's $55,000 budget. Hardiplank is cheaper than vinyl siding, said Rick Hind with Greenpeace's Toxics Campaign, but unlike vinyl it needs to be painted. Some products will be donated, such as paint from ICI Paint, linoleum from Forbo Floors and carpeting without PVC backing from Shaw Carpet, he said.
The group's final report will note these costs so Greenpeace can learn and improve upon the process, Hind said.
Neither the local affiliate nor Habitat International has an official position on the controversy. "We'll take as many house sponsors as we can get," Pate said. The Greenpeace house is flanked by other Habitat houses with vinyl siding, including two sponsored by Harry Connick Jr.
"I don't have a dog in this fight," Pate said. "Our goal is to put Shylia Lewis and her four children into a decent, safe, affordable Habitat house. We're glad Greenpeace funded that."
Lewis is the homeowner who will occupy the house once it is completed in April.
"It may be a direction we go," Pate said of the toxic-free process. "We may decide part of it makes sense for us and some doesn't."