Mar 04, 2014
THEME: Sustainability

Fixing the Toxic Loopholes in LEED V4 and EPDs

LEED V4 and Environmental Product Declarations have a giant, toxic loophole that designers, green professionals, and the USGBC need to know about.  

After digging around in the International Standard Organization’s (ISO) 14025 guidelines governing Environmental Product Declarations (one of the new material health tools recently endorsed by LEED), sustainability leaders at Perkins+Will found that ISO compliant EPDs are hiding a nasty blemish – manufacturers are not effectively required to publish their product’s impact on human health and ecological toxicity impacts. The same EPD that offers a broad, detailed environmental impact statement for everything from global warming to acid rain is not required by the ISO or LEED V4 to identify their impacts on human health and ecological toxicity.

From what we are starting to see in the market, manufacturers making toxic products are taking advantage of this loophole and developing EPDs that don’t transparently report on human health and ecological toxicity. These products are often presented as being green and sustainable, when they are in fact taking a larger toll on our wellness. To put it in comparison, the products of today that expose users to carcinogens and other toxins during their life cycle are similar to the lead paints, DDT pesticides or asbestos insulation of a generation ago. Under the ISO EPD rules, todays toxic products can green kudos for disclosing some environmental impacts and can even contribute to a LEED Certification – all while selectively omitting their most insidious environmental challenge: toxicity impacts. 

Going forward, EPDs requirements need to be changed to require toxicity reporting. Otherwise they mislead the public and violate the law. Many EPD developers and manufacturers may not be aware that under the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Environmental Marketing Guides, EPDs qualify as ‘general environmental claims’ and are required to fully substantiate their advertised benefits. Thus an EPD for a product that has toxicity impacts must identify these or else the EPD is deceptive.  The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Guides prohibit deceptive environmental communications. As it stands now, EPDs can comply with ISO requirements, but not be in compliance with FTC Truth in Advertising Law.

In 2006 when the ISO EPD guidelines were published, it was argued that toxicity reporting was not consistent, making it inappropriate to publish the data in EPDs. However, with the release of the USEtox protocols in 2010 a standard way in which to report toxins is universally available and consistency is now feasible. ISO needs to begin the process of updating their guidelines; and because this is a legal issue in the United States, the USGBC can immediately fix their toxic loophole by simply requiring EPDs to report human health and ecological toxicity impacts in order to earn LEED recognition. They should also correct the same issue with the Whole Building Life Cycle Assessement (LCA) requirements in credit MRc1. Since these changes are needed in order to correct a legal deficiency in the LEED criteria, this can be done administratively, without a member vote.

We’ve come a long way in making buildings that engage thoughtfully with our planet and ourselves. It would be foolish to allow this remaining loophole to stand in the way of the next great era of sustainable buildings. 

Read the entire whitepaper ‘Expanding LEED V4 Material Health Transparency:The Lack of Toxin Reporting in ISO EPDs + LCAs is in Conflict with Truth in Advertising Law’.


  1. Jodi Smits Anderson
    6:20 pm on March 21, 2014 | Reply

    I thought that’s why we’ve included HPDs in another credit. Isn’t this article kindof saying something like “daylighting design is great, but what about electric lighting design?” Again, covered now in two separate credits.

  2. Doug Pierce Doug Pierce
    8:36 pm on March 25, 2014 | Reply

    Hi Jodi, thanks for the excellent question.

    HPDs are important and very relevant, however they only cover a products ingredients at the point of delivery. I think of this as the products embedded toxins. EPDs differ dramatically from HPDs covering the products expanded life-cycle impacts + emissions (along with other things). They cover the raw material extraction, transporation and the manufacturing phases; both of which occur prior to the products point of delivery. They are not heavily focused on listing a products embedded toxins like an HPD, so they would provide a very different type of toxin reporting than that provided by an HPD. Here are a couple of examples:

    Example 1) Here in Minnesota, we have a debate raging about copper sulfide open-pit mining and the toxic health impacts created during the extraction phase of the copper sulfide. While copper sulfide mining is infamous for be very toxic, an HPD would not report on the health impacts associated with the mining (unless toxic residues from the extraction phase carry over into the final product as delivered to the job site). But an EPD would include those toxic impacts for a product that used copper sulfide extraction to get its needed raw materials (if the EPD included toxin reporting).

    Example 2) Another debate that is raging here is about Triclosan (a sanitizing agent in many hand sanatizers). Scientists are saying that Triclosan converts to a toxic compound after it is used and released into the environment. An HPD would not report that toxic compound because an HPD is assessing triclosan at the point of delivery, as a product ingredient, not after it is used and released via the sewer system into a river or lake (where it changes and becomes toxic). Unfortunately, as it stands now most EPDs would not cover it either even if toxin reporting was mandated (if it were a construction product), because end-of-life phase reporting is not required for construction materials by ISO or LEED. So, we are calling for LEED to include end-of-life phase impacts in EPDs as well as toxin reporting.

    As you can see from the examples above, reporting life-cycle toxin impacts in an EPD is very different from HPD reporting in significant ways.

    We are concerned that because Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) appear to be all encompassing, that without toxic impact reporting they will create an illusion of transparency without the actual transparency. The majority of professionals and end-users will not be savvy to this and they will be mislead about a products toxic impacts.

    And for those professionals that are just a little more informed about the difference in EPDs and HPDs, the HPDs at first appear to be the perfect companion with an EPD to provide full and comprehensive transparency that includes toxin reporting for any given product; however as you can see from the examples above, there are actually huge holes left in the toxin reporting even when combining an HPD + EPD as long as EPDs are not mandated to provide life-cycle toxin reporting. Very few people understand that and it could be years before it is understood in-mass, if ever.

    And my last point is this: If you are a product manufacturer of a product with embedded toxins, why do an HPD, when you can do an EPD and appear toxin free? All while getting your green credentials for having done an Environmental Product Declaration. This hurts transparency.

    Best Regards,

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