A Tortoise, a Hare, and Some Posturing Politicians

June 19, 2012
A Tortoise, a Hare, and Some Posturing Politicians

When politicians join the fray, you know that the rhetorical temperature is rising — and that the discussion is dumbing down.

In May, a group of 55 congressmen took umbrage at the General Services Administration (GSA) for its use of LEED ratings. GSA’s goal for new construction is LEED Gold certification.

The full text of the congressmen’s letter, complete with its warts of wording, is available at the website of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan), but here are key quotes: “We are deeply concerned that the LEED rating system is becoming a tool to punish chemical companies and plastics makers and spread misinformation about materials that have been at the forefront of improving environmental performance — and even occupant safety — and in buildings [sic]. This transformation into an anti-chemical system runs counter to the government’s objectives of increasing energy efficiency and utilizes a European standard called REACH … If USGBC does not reconsider these harmful provisions in LEED 2012, we respectfully request that GSA stop using the LEED rating system.”

The issues are more complex than such knee-jerk words as “punish” and “anti-chemical” suggest. Well-intentioned people — and ill-intentioned people — will have different opinions. Lifecycle assessment (LCA) is a painfully slow and imperfect tortoise in the early stage of the race. But the politicians’ reaction is like the hare in the fable who rashly sized up the situation and then decided he could afford to take a nap.

There are many legitimate issues with LEED ratings and with the difficulty of creating credible and usable LCA measures that accurately depict cradle-to-grave impacts. The politicians also have a point about adopting REACH, which is a consensus-based European program created without North American inputs. But throwing out LEED without proposing a replacement isn’t an answer.

For exactly the same reasons, red lists that ban harmful substances are also problematic. For example, if a banned substance eliminates a roofing system with a particularly long life, the environmental impact of more frequent replacement must be factored in. This time factor confounds the assessment of building materials designed to last for many decades. Moreover, the direct effects on human health of building materials are often harder to assess than those of consumer products, such as the hard plastic water bottles that initially seemed like a good alternative to single-use containers. In that instance, the danger of bisphenol A called for an immediate reaction.

The health and environmental issues are too important for shortsighted rhetoric spurred by special interests to trump sound — albeit slow — research and assessment.

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