Green building codes raise concerns

Chemical firms say proposed new rules would harm them

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WASHINGTON -- Chemical companies are lobbying Congress to limit government use of proposed, tougher green building codes in the hope that alternative standards may be adopted.

The U.S. Green Building Council, which received $3 million from Google last year to promote nontoxic materials, has proposed updating its voluntary but widely used Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards to give credit to builders that avoid chemicals that pose health risks. Members of the Washington-based council are voting this month on the updated protocols known as LEED 4.

Generally supportive of efficiency programs because they promote the use of insulation and other chemical products, the American Chemistry Council in Washington and other groups say the green-building standards are veering into the trickier area of health policy. They say the new rules will stigmatize chemicals without providing much benefit.

"LEED has a powerful impact on what happens in the marketplace," said Craig Silvertooth, president of the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing, a Washington group whose members include Johns Manville Corp. in Littleton, Colo. The American Chemistry Council's members include Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., and DuPont Co. in Wilmington, Del.

The voluntary green building standards have been embraced by builders looking for ways to cut energy and water use. The green building council says 44 percent of new buildings in 2012 received some level of LEED certification, up from 2 percent in 2005.

"It's become shorthand for just a better building," Lane Burt, policy director for the Green Building Council, said in an interview.

Silvertooth said the new green building council standards, if adopted, could effectively blacklist chemicals like titanium dioxide, which provides the properties on "white roofs" that can make it easier to cool buildings.

Titanium dioxide poses little health risk if properly used, Silvertooth said.

Used in everything from household paint to toothpaste, titanium dioxide is listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as a potential chemical hazard if inhaled as a dust.

Paula Melton, managing editor of BuildingGreen Inc., which promotes more efficient building construction through a website, said in an email that the proposed LEED credits wouldn't affect use of titanium dioxide.

"We've combed through every draft of LEED 4 and have never seen mention of titanium dioxide or of any system that restricts its use," Melton said in an email.

The roofing group, the chemistry council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business lobbying group, are among 39 organizations behind the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition, which promotes green-building standards different from LEED's.

They are lobbying Congress to ensure U.S. agencies consider alternatives to LEED when buying new buildings or starting large improvement projects.

Dow doesn't think the proposed standards "account for the actual exposure risk potential of the building product," Nancy Lamb, a company spokeswoman, said in an email.

"Dow is very committed to thorough evaluation of the health risk potential of all of our building products and technologies," Lamb said. "However, we believe this falls under chemical regulation" better managed by the Environmental Protection Agency.