LEED, materials and health: Discussions at Berkeley | U.S. Green Building Council
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What happens when you gather 76 passionate and informed professionals in a room to discuss challenges and opportunities at the intersection of health, materials, and the built environment? Progress.

That’s how I felt at the end of the day on Thursday, February 20, when USGBC, the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and the USGBC Northern California Chapter jointly hosted a full day event on that topic. Speakers and panelists representing the fields of design, construction, product manufacturing, policy, health, law, and academia came together to share ideas, have productive dialogue, and probe more deeply into the topic of materials and health.

Throughout the meeting we collected feedback from participants on their observations and useful resources they’ve encountered. At the end of the day we asked them to share one particularly meaningful observation, remark, resource, or approach they took away from the event. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Only 5 out of over 84,000 chemicals in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) database have been banned or restricted by the EPA in the 38 years since TSCA was passed in 1976.[1] (Read the article by USGBC senior research fellow Megan Schwarzman for more background on TSCA.)
  • Chemicals are treated as “innocent until proven guilty” with regards to their health effects due to flawed national policy. Why is the burden of proof on the public rather than industry?
  • There is a lack of information about materials ingredients and their health effects, and there are barriers to accessing what we do have. Let’s get beyond talking about data gaps and focus instead on how emerging professionals can think and act differently to address these issues and work around data gaps.
  • We need to include social equity in the discussion. All people, regardless of socioeconomic status, should benefit from healthy buildings.
  • Focus first on schools and daycares and take precautions to protect our most vulnerable populations.
  • Being able to use a financial argument or incentive can really work. Consider purchasing power as a way to demand change.

Listening to all the speakers and comments, I quickly realized how nuanced and faceted this topic is. Chemists, toxicologists, public health and policy experts, materials scientists, product manufacturers, designers, and construction professionals often use different terms when discussing materials and health. But the simple truth is that, while we don’t always speak the same language, we do have similar goals. Can LEED provide a common language and framework to bring our communities together and facilitate progress?

My biggest takeaway from the day was that market influence is the most powerful tool we have, no matter what your role is in the supply chain or how you relate to materials and health. One third of the observations we collected during the Berkeley event had to do with market influence and the idea that we, the consumers, drive demand. 

What can you do? Keep asking questions, dig deeper, bring this topic up with co-workers and clients, and request more information on the products we put in our buildings and the chemicals we put in our products. We drive demand. We have the purchasing power. Let’s use it!

Realizing industry-wide change on this topic will be a marathon, not a sprint, I am invigorated to be at the starting line surrounded by others who also see a long but attainable path to a finish. Come join us. This was the first of several events that USGBC and our partners will be hosting throughout 2014. Sign up here to be notified of future health and materials webcasts and events.  

Suggested resources from the attendees:

Related articles:

Meet USGBC’s Senior Materials Research Fellows


[1] U.S. Government Accountability Office, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives. Chemical Regulation Observations on the Toxic Substances Control Act and EPA Implementation, June 13, 2013 (page 2).  http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/655202.pdf