New LEED Pilot Credits Advance While Chemical Data Gap Looms

Bill Walsh - January 14, 2011

Last year the USGBC introduced two new Pilot Credits[1] that reward precautionary action, the avoidance of certain classes of chemicals in the face of mounting evidence that they present significant threats to human health.[2] Industry trade groups fought these measures as they fight all chemical regulation, with the argument restrictions or disincentives against chemical use must be based upon "sound science" that proves the connection between a specific chemical and a specific health problem beyond a shadow of a doubt. But due to a catch-22 in current US law, the EPA must prove potential risk or widespread exposure before it can get the data it needs to determine the extent of hazard, exposure or risk.[3] If we want to make green buildings healthy buildings, merely following the law will lead us in circles.

To fully appreciate the importance of precautionary measures such as the LEED Pilot Credits, consider the failure of the chemical industry's voluntary effort to provide EPA with information about High Production Volume (HPV) chemicals - chemicals produced or imported into the US at volumes in excess of 1 million pounds per year. In the early 1980s, the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council found that 78% of the chemicals in highest-volume commercial use had not had even "minimal" toxicity testing.[4] Thirteen years later, a comprehensive report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found no significant improvement: "even the most basic toxicity testing results cannot be found in the public record for nearly 75% of the top-volume chemicals in commercial use."[5]

In 1998, multiple studies by federal government agencies confirmed that the government lacked basic data needed to understand and characterize the potential hazards associated with HPV chemicals.[6] There are roughly 3,000 such chemicals. "Most Americans would assume that basic toxicity testing is available and that all chemicals in commerce today are safe... This is not a prudent assumption," said one review.[7] An EPA review could find no safety information for more than half of them, and complete data for only 7 percent. Additionally, EDF reported, there are tens of thousands of non-HPV chemicals that remain to be addressed, which likely have even larger data gaps than were found for HPV chemicals.[8]

These findings prompted the EPA to swing into action - voluntary action. The High Production Volume Chemical Challenge of 1998 invited American industries to "sponsor" HPV chemicals and voluntarily provide health and safety data in lieu of regulatory action. More than 2,200 chemicals were eventually "sponsored," but ten years later, in 2008, the EPA still had no data on more than half of them. Of the data sets it had received from industry, fewer than half were complete, according to EDF, an original sponsor of the program.

On January 5, 2011, the EPA finally took regulatory action. It will require testing of just "19 of the many hundreds of HPV chemicals on the market today for which even the most basic, 'screening level' hazard data are not publicly available."[9]

The Dow Chemical Company calls the program "a tremendous success."[10] An investigative report by the Milwaukee Journal deemed it "a failure."[11] Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at EDF and one of the most knowledgeable independent experts on the program calls it "a perfect poster child for what's wrong" with federal chemical regulations.[12]

Efforts to reform the major US law regulating chemical production, the Toxic Substances Control Act, are underway but are unlikely to make it through the Republican controlled House of Representatives. In the meantime, despite the data gaps, it is possible to make responsible, healthier choices based upon the best available evidence. The new LEED Pilot Credits help you make those choices and remove tons of toxic chemicals from our buildings, our bodies and our environment. Take your first step toward earning these credits with LEEDuser, and easily find products that qualify for the credits using the Pharos online system.


[1] Combined, Credits 2 and 11 in the USGBC's new Pilot Library reward the avoidance of persistent bioaccumulative toxins, halogenated organic compounds, phthalates and halogenated flame retardants.

[2] The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle summarizes the principle this way: "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." The US Green Building Council Guiding Principle #4 states: The USGBC will be guided by the precautionary principle in utilizing technical and scientific data to protect, preserve and restore the health of the global environment, ecosystems.

[3] Richard Denison, Environmental Defense Fund. "A Near Sisyphusian Task; EPA Soldiers On to Require More Testing Under TSCA." 1/5/11.

[4] Environmental Defense Fund. "Toxic Ignorance: The Continuing Absence of Basic Health Testing for Top-Selling Chemicals in the United States." 1997, p.11.

[5] Environmental Defense Fund. "Toxic Ignorance: The Continuing Absence of Basic Health Testing for Top-Selling Chemicals in the United States." 1997, p.7.

[6] Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust. "EPA fails to collect chemical safety data." JS Online. 8/4/08.

[7] Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust. "EPA fails to collect chemical safety data." JS Online. 8/4/08.

[8] Environmental Defense Fund. "High Hopes, Low Marks: A Final Report Card on the High Production Volume Chemical Challenge." p.30. 2007.

[9] Denison, op. cit., Note that EPA has initiated another rulemaking targeting another 29 chemicals.

[10] Dow. "Product Safety."

[11] Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust. "EPA fails to collect chemical safety data." JS Online. 8/4/08.

[12] Denison, op. cit.