LEED Building Standards Fail to Protect Human Health
The LEED program — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is playing an increasingly important role in the drive to make buildings in the United States greener and more energy efficient. LEED is now the most prominent and widely adopted green building certification program in the country, with architects and developers striving to earn LEED’s coveted platinum or gold rating, and an increasing number of local, state, and federal regulations beginning to incorporate LEED standards into official building codes.
But LEED — sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry group — has a glaring and little-known drawback: It places scant emphasis on factors relating to human health, even as the largely unregulated use of potentially toxic building materials continues to expand. One of LEED's major accomplishments — saving energy by making buildings more airtight — has had the paradoxical effect of more effectively trapping the gases emitted by the unprecedented number of chemicals used in today’s building materials and furnishings. Yet, as the threat from indoor air pollution grows, LEED puts almost no weight on human health factors in deciding whether a building meets its environmental and social goals.
I was lead author of a report on this issue that was released in May, and I recently met with Green Building Council executives, who made it clear that LEED’s management is deeply committed to an energy efficient future. Yet it also was apparent that the certification system is unlikely to soon focus on health with respect to hazardous chemicals.
At this point, LEED, a voluntary set of standards created by architects, engineers and builders, can award its highest level of certification —platinum — to a structure that earns no credits for air quality. In practice, the average LEED-certified building achieves only 6 percent of its total points for "indoor environmental quality," the category most closely tied to health, although some of these credits are often given for lighting and thermal comfort rather than assurance of reduced exposure to dangerous substances.
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