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.