Are “Green” Buildings Killing Us? No.

Screen capture. Fast Company

It’s hard to believe that it’s 2017 and we are still seeing headlines like Fastco Design’s Are “Green” Buildings Killing Us?
There are a number of things about this headline and Katherine Schwab’s article that follows, and the study that it is based on, that are seriously troubling. It’s all about a study of a low income housing project in Boston that was built to LEED standards, and examined by the authors of the study in 2013. (It took them a few years to turn it into the study, which was just released online on 12 September).

Don't conflate LEED and building certification with green building.

The first and most important problem with both the Fastcodesign headline and the Silent Spring Institute press release is that, as Lance Hosey puts it, “it conflates green building and green building certification.” There are lots of green building certification systems, and LEED doesn’t define the entire industry. The building described here doesn't even define LEED, which has changed a lot since then; version V4 addresses almost all of these issues. There are certification systems that are obsessive about air quality (like Passivhaus), obsessive about health (Like Well) and seriously into material health, like the Living Building Challenge. There are lots of really green, healthy buildings that don’t have any certification at all. So don’t taint all of green building with this one project that was built to an earlier LEED standard, which at no time represented the totality of green building.

Don't blame LEED because there are chemicals, blame the regulators and the industry.

Then there are the chemicals that the researchers are looking at.

Reporting September 12 in the journal Environment International, the researchers tested for nearly 100 chemicals—including phthalates, flame retardants, pesticides, antimicrobials, fragrances, formaldehyde, and chlorinated solvents. Exposure to these chemicals has been associated with numerous health effects such as hormone disruption, asthma, reproductive disorders, lower IQ, and cancer.
Plastics News

© Rich Williams/ Plastics News

Remember, this building was studied in 2013. It was built in 2011. Anyone following the history of LEED will know that there was a fight going on for years with the industry about whether vinyl was safe, and it was all about the phthalates. Or that there were years of organized LEED-bashing by the chemical industry, trying to ban it from government buildings, all because of plastics and phthalates. But it was the industry, and the clients who wanted easy to clean and cheap, who kept vinyl in low cost housing.

formaldehyde is nice

Formaldehyde facts/Screen capture

Anyone trying to buy any piece of foam insulation, upholstered furniture, even a home computer would find that it is full of flame retardants- IT’S THE LAW. Anyone trying to find a kitchen cabinet or IKEA flatpack furniture made of particle board would be bringing in formaldehyde. The industry will still deny that phthalates or flame retardants cause hormone disruption or any of the health effects, yet the authors somehow think they can be kept out of low-cost housing.

vinyl phthalates leed ban photo acc

And there was no requirement for good mechanical ventilation; in fact, according to the study, these buildings have no mechanical ventilation at all. This is nobody's definition of green building; it is from another era. I wrote about this very issue back in 2010, in a post titled In Green Building, You Can't Separate Energy and Health:

The real message, both with LEED towers and single family houses, is that you cannot worry about energy savings without worrying about air quality, they go hand in hand. If you make a building energy efficient then you have to worry about VOCs, formaldehyde, fire retardants and every other chemical that can build up; an efficient house has to be a healthy house.

Don't blame green building for what people bring into the building.

The researchers are shocked at how much of the toxic stuff is brought in by the residents.

After the residents moved in, the indoor air’s chemical make-up changed. There were significant increases in levels of triclosan (an antimicrobial found in toothpaste and soaps), fragrances (found in personal care and cleaning products), phthalates (which are added to plastics, vinyl, and personal care products), and other flame retardants (found in furniture). This suggests that residents, through their personal belongings and behaviors, also have a strong influence on the air inside their units.
Spa Soap antibacterial

Mike Mozart/CC BY 2.0

Well yes, that goes without saying, when you have major companies pushing antibacterial toothpaste and cleaners, cheap furniture made of particle board and polyurethane foam, all filled with flame retardants and phtalates. How is this an indictment of green building? Then there are the cleaners and chemicals; as Melissa wrote years ago, 8 things to never bring into your home "Make your house a haven, not a toxic waste site."

Researcher Dodson tells FastcoDesign:

“Green building standards need to do a better job thinking about the chemicals and materials being used,” Dodson says. “Why not be more comprehensive in your thinking? It’s not just about energy efficiencies–are we improving health?”

Again, lots of green building standards do exactly this, including LEED, which has evolved a lot since 2011 when the particular building she looked at was built. She goes on and digs deeper:
“It doesn’t matter if you’re public housing or a single family home,” Dodson says. “We have a lack of real understanding about what is in building materials in general. We need to know more about that.”
precautionary list

© Perkins + Will

Again, this is patently untrue. Architects have many resources and more and more have the option to chose materials where they know exactly what is in them. If the government wasn’t protecting industry, if they would accept European REACH standards, it would be much easier. If the clients building public housing would be willing to give up on vinyl, if flame retardants weren’t required, if people didn’t buy nail polish and lipstick, it would be much easier.

Daily Mail headline

Daily Mail headline/Screen capture

When the Daily Mail ran headlines like “Are energy efficient homes making us ill?” I wrote:

The Daily Mail is scaring people away from fixing their homes by claiming that energy efficient buildings will make people sick, and commenters are saying "that's why I love my draughty old house." They should be ashamed of themselves, but they never are.

FastCo Design is not the Daily Mail, but when they write headlines like Are “Green” Buildings Killing Us? they are doing much the same thing- tainting an entire industry with a really tired old brush. It is a disturbing headline that will no doubt be on Breitbart or Drudge tomorrow, because of course, green building is a hoax and now we learn that it kills. I am loath to be so critical of another website, but I expect a lot more from FastCo Design.

UPDATE: Study author Robin Dodson responds, and notes that she had no input into the Fast Company headline:

While it is true that some in the industry have done a better job at considering materials, the building industry as a whole needs to do better at evaluating materials before they are used in construction. In my experience talking to architects, including 'green' architects, information about chemicals in building materials is not always available and the lack of transparency makes it difficult to make informed decisions. Certainly things appear to be moving in the right direction. As you mention, LEED v4 has some optional credits for material transparency and avoiding chemicals of concern.
I see my research as a way of advancing not just the science, but also the conversation, so that people see green buildings as real opportunities for improving both energy efficiency and health. Research by my colleague (and co-author) Gary Adamkiewicz shows that residents in “green” housing report fewer respiratory-related symptoms and that levels of regulated chemicals are lower in green versus conventional housing. This current study does not take away from those previous findings. Rather, it emphasizes the need to understand sources of chemical exposures in order to develop more comprehensive approaches to dealing with indoor environmental quality. Our innovative study design – measuring exposures before and after occupancy – allowed us to identify chemical sources in homes, without which developing exposure reduction strategies is very difficult.