ACC Pits Risk Assessment Against Right to Know in New LEED Credit

Tom Lent - May 25, 2016

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) consolidated their gains today in their battle to undermine design teams’ right to know about product contents and hazards with a new LEED Pilot credit.  The Building Material Human Hazard & Exposure Assessment Pilot Credit that the USGBC announced this week provides manufacturers with an alternate pathway to contribute to LEED credits by undertaking risk assessments on their products instead of disclosing the contents of their products and their hazards. It was developed “in conjunction with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and its members,”[1] and clearly represents an effort by the USGBC to placate this trade association that has been attacking the USGBC ever since the announcement of the Material Ingredients credit in LEED V4, at times going so far as to try to destroy the USGBC’s access to government contracts.[2]

The credit only requires five products from two manufacturers in a project to go through the exercise to get a LEED point. Compare that to the twenty product requirement of the Material Inventory Credit Reporting Option or the 25% of cost requirement of the Optimization Option. 

The Pilot credit language is loose, ill-defined and lacking many key elements that would be critical to a serious assessment.

The process starts with a “screening level hazard assessment for each substance” in the product. This step is written to avoid screening for the full set of health impacts of concern that the HPD, GreenScreen and Cradle to Cradle Certification require. Instead it is based only on the health impacts required to be addressed by the regulatory GHS system, just as they did with the credit modification in April,[3] hence ignoring some of the highest concern hazards, including neurotoxicants, endocrine disruptors and persistent bioaccumulative toxicants.[4]  Furthermore, unlike the HPD and GreenScreen hazard screening in the Material Ingredient credit, there is no criteria for how this screening is actually done - no indication of what lists need to be screened or what other data needs to be utilized. In other words, the manufacturer can craft a screening to their own convenience.

Next the credit calls for an exposure assessment. The language provides no fixed criteria for this step either - just a general statement to use “authoritative approaches consistent with ECETOC or equivalent.” It does require the assessor to document assumptions about when and how exposure occurs, but you will never know what those assumptions and exposures are as the credit does not require any disclosure to the user.

Finally the credit calls for a quantitative risk calculation to calculate a factor called the Risk Characterization Ratio (RCR). This sounds straightforward. The calculations attempt to determine if a person will be exposed to an amount of the chemical that is less than the levels where researchers have seen an effect.  If so, the product has an RCR less than one and it passes.

The problem comes in that to come up with this number requires determining many, many other numbers and adding or multiplying them all together. The assessor needs numbers representing the potency of the chemical for each health impact, the amount in the product, the rate at which it migrates from the product, including all the different ways it can migrate (off gassing, flaking, absorption, adsorption) during use or during other parts of the product’s life cycle, how it is absorbed, inhaled or ingested by people, how long they are exposed and to how much concentration. Of course many of these numbers are unknown and must be guesstimated by the person doing the assessment. The more they estimate - or skip over - missing data points, the larger the potential error becomes. Suggestions are made for practices that "can be used", but there are no clear requirements to fill data gaps. Eventually the uncertainty can become huge and render the quantitative results meaningless.

The credit provides no guidance for addressing these mushrooming uncertainties. There is no requirement to do a sensitivity analysis to find out how sensitive the result is to the assumptions made, much less to reveal the results of that assessment. In fact the credit does not require anything about the product or the analysis to be revealed. Not the product’s contents, its hazards, or the assumptions and calculations that led to the conclusion that those hazards would not result in significant enough exposures. That remains a secret between the manufacturer and the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) which administers the LEED technical reviews. 

Certainly it is reasonable for thoughtful specifiers to use exposure information to prioritize how and when they address a specific hazard in building product contents. But an assessment of exposure – whether a qualitative exposure assessment or a full blown quantitative risk assessment like this one – should be treated as more information for the buyer, not an excuse to cover up hazard.

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.

Without full disclosure of contents, underlying hazards, methods, assumptions, assessment outcomes  and error bars, this credit is just a ticket to greenwash. It gives a facade of legitimacy to a highly controversial risk assessment process and gives the manufacturers the opportunity to make up their own convenient analysis to substitute for disclosure and simple hazard assessment. It adds more confusion to the LEED credit process,  and undermines the harmonization work that the USGBC has supported. Perhaps worst, it obscures the real progress being made by manufacturers who are devoted to reducing product hazards and slows innovation to solve the actual health problems in the building product industry.

Will this Credit spell the end of the usefulness of the LEED Material Ingredient Credit? Not yet. This new credit is just entering a Pilot. Uptake by the A&D community will be an important determinant of its success.

Despite the ACC’s best efforts, there are still meaningful pathways in the LEED Material Ingredient Credit to use instead. See the box Avoiding ACC greenwash in Risky Business: Undermining the LEED Material Credit 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 manufacturer’s rep to let them know what you will accept. And let the USGBC know that you care about what is happening to this credit.

[2] For a full description of the ACC’s efforts to modify the LEED system, see Risky Business: Undermining the LEED Material Credit

[4] 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 (other than in association with aquatic toxicity).



I received additional observations from Catherine Bobenhausen. She points out that the Pilot credit is not aligned with the LEEDv4 material ingredient reporting and optimization credits on several other points, e.g. it doesn’t include consideration of:

  • feasible and relevant environmental transformation products which occur during functional use (GreenScreen, HPD, C2C, REACH all consider these)
  • implications of datagaps (e.g., in GreenScreen, datagaps are carefully assessed, including consideration of worst case impacts on a chemical’s overall benchmark)
  • consistency; e.g., chemical reference values can be derived privately, and may not necessarily be sourced from recognized authorities
  • peer-review; e.g., there is no public disclosure of methodology, assumptions, inputs, and no independent validation of outcome, no definition of “validation”
  • timeliness of data; e.g., no expiration date on assessment, no mechanism to ensure reassessment in light of new information

She worries about the latitude that’s offered in the pilot, and says it’s inconsistent with USGBC’s efforts at harmonization and equivalence, as she reports in

Tom Lent is the Policy Director for the Healthy Building Network.