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Building or Buying Your Sustainable Home:
Cracks in the Green Mortar
by Rolf Priesnitz

In many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, there are no federal “green building standards” in the way there are federal organic food or drinking water standards. Given that vacuum, many organizations have created their own certification programs, hoping to capture growing demand for environmentally friendly and healthy buildings. This column has described many of these programs over the past couple of years.

While I applaud and support these efforts as important steps on the path to sustainability, I think it’s important to understand – and learn from – their flaws. After all, some of these programs are being used as the basis for building codes and tax credits. So I’d like to highlight some recently exposed issues with the LEED and Energy Star programs.

LEED and Healthy Buildings

A recent study, entitled LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health by the Connecticut-based non-profit Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), found that LEED certification gives a false impression of the safety of so-called “environmentally friendly” buildings. Currently, a building achieves LEED status based on an aggregate score, with some measurements, such as energy efficiency, weighing more towards the final score than others, like air quality. EHHI, which is made up of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts committed to the reduction of environmental health risks to individuals, points out that it is possible for a building to achieve the highest LEED certification, even if it makes no improvements in indoor air quality, and in spite of well-recognized hazardous chemicals in the building materials.

More energy efficient buildings may actually increase exposure to toxic chemicals, because energy conservation often requires reducing air exchange between indoors and outdoors. But the EHHI study notes that many of the tens of thousands of building materials used today contain chemicals recognized by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the CDC, or the World Health Organization to be hazardous, although few of them have been regulated in building products. These products include pesticides, chemical components of plastics, flame retardants, solvents, adhesives, paints and other surface applications, some of which are carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone mimics, reproductive toxins, developmental toxins, or chemicals that either stimulate or suppress the immune system.

“Although the primary stated purposes of the Green Building Council are to promote both energy efficiency and human health, even the Council’s most prestigious Platinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of the certified buildings,” says John Wargo, a professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University, and the study’s lead author.

The study’s authors blame the LEED credit system for the problem and refer to it as “something for all, guarantees for none.” They recommend that, rather than issuing awards of “platinum,” “gold,” and so on, the Green Building Council (GBC), which administers LEED certification, should require performance within each of its categories (health, energy, sites, neighborhoods, etc.) on a zero to one hundred scale. Another recommendation is that the GBC appoint more health scientists and physicians to its board of directors.

Energy Star and Credibility

Energy Star is an international, government-backed label for products – including homes – that supposedly meet certain specifications based on a set of guiding principles designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants caused by the inefficient use of energy. These principles are:

  • Product categories must contribute significant energy savings nation-wide.
  • Qualified products must deliver the features and performance demanded by consumers, in addition to increased energy efficiency.
  • If the qualified product costs more than a conventional, less-efficient counterpart, purchasers will recover their investment in increased energy efficiency through utility bill savings, within a reasonable period of time.
  • Energy efficiency can be achieved through broadly available, non-proprietary technologies offered by more than one manufacturer.
  • Product energy consumption and performance can be measured and verified with testing.
  • Labeling would effectively differentiate products and be visible for purchasers.

In the U.S., the program – which began in 1992 – is run jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE). In Canada, it’s administered by Natural Resources Canada.

Governments in both countries offer tax credits and other incentives to encourage the use of Energy Star products. For instance, approximately three hundred million dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be used for state rebate programs on energy-efficient products. Canada Mortgage and Housing (CMHC) is promoting its program by which purchasers of certain energy-efficient homes can benefit from a ten percent mortgage insurance premium refund. Energy Star certified new homes in Saskatchewan and Ontario qualify for the program, along with others such as R-2000 and LEED.

There is no doubt the program is popular. Concerned about the Energy Star program’s vulnerability to fraud by companies wanting the lucrative symbol on their products, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) researched the program. In March, 2010, it released the results of a study that found the Energy Star certification process was, indeed vulnerable to abuse because it relies, for the most part, on self-certification and ensures increased sales for successful applicants.

The GAO used covert testing, submitting applications for Energy Star certification for twenty bogus products from fictitious people and companies. Only two of the products were rejected by Energy Star. Certification was obtained for fifteen products using fake energy efficiency claims.

One fake product, a gas-powered alarm clock, was supposed to be the size of a small generator and was approved without Energy Star staff even reviewing the company’s website or questioning any claims of efficiency. Two other products were approved within twenty-four hours of the application, and a geothermal heat pump was approved despite the fact that its claims to efficiency exceeded any comparable product in the Energy Star database. Only four of the applicants were asked for certification to be verified by an independent third party.

A month later, the DOE and EPA announced measures to strengthen the Energy Star certification process. In a statement, the agencies said that “effective immediately, manufacturers wishing to qualify their products as Energy Star must submit complete lab reports and results for review and approval by EPA prior to labeling. Following a thorough review of the Energy Star qualification approval process, EPA has strengthened its approval systems and is no longer relying on an automated approval process. All new qualification applications will be reviewed and approved individually by EPA.”

Effective at the end of 2010, all manufacturers will be required to submit test results from an approved, accredited lab for any product seeking the Energy Star label.

What Can We Learn?

The message in all of this is: Consumer Beware. As we wrote in an article about greenwashing back in the May/June 2008 issue of Natural Life Magazine, the fast-growing sustainability realm is no more immune to fraudulent or inaccurate claims than any other. In fact, because green business is a growth industry, it may be even more vulnerable to the marketing lure of false claims.

Be sure any claims made about a product are backed up by reputable third-party testing. In its report to the U.S. government about the Energy Star program, the GAO notes that, “Officials [from DOE and EPA] acknowledged that currently the Energy Star program relies on self-policing, manufacturer integrity, and after-market testing for high volume products in cases where there is not a third-party testing requirement for certification. Our ability to obtain product certifications with unverified test results illustrates the need for, at a minimum, some level of third-party testing for the program to be one of certification versus self-certification.”

Finally, especially when you’re shopping for an expensive purchase like a house, research the specifics and don’t rely just on the certification. And, as we’ve seen from the LEED and indoor air quality issue, don’t assume that any one certification program or label will be perfect or will cover off your own personal concerns. The path to sustainability is a complicated one, with many different competing interests and many problems yet to be solved.

Learn More

Environment and Human Health LEED Study

GAO Energy Star Report

Energy Star US

Rolf Priesnitz is the founder and Publisher of Natural Life Magazine, and has over 40 years experience in the construction industry.

 

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