If you live or work in a LEED-certified building, how should you feel? Good? Would you expect to feel no different than if you worked in a ‘normal’ building? Believe it or not, you may feel worse. Mixed reviews are starting to surface regarding the effect that living or working in a LEED-certified building will have on human health.
A Michigan State University study published on July 15 of this year boldly declared that people who work in LEED-certified buildings are less likely to be sick, are more productive, and feel less stress than those who work in buildings which are not LEED-certified. (Singh, Grady, et. al, “Effects of Green Buildings on Health and Productivity,” http://news.msu.edu/media/documents/2010/08/840514e8-0b32-4aa4-9fc8-276b688dfed4.pdf). Surprisingly to us, this study relied on self-reporting of those people who had moved from a non-LEED-certified building for information as to their health, or perceived health, rather than strict scientific study.
But a recent report from Environment and Human Health, Inc., a Connecticut non-profit group (“EEHI”), concludes that green buildings do not necessarily protect workers against environmental hazards. (http://www.ehhi.org/leed/). John Wargo, Ph.D., professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University and lead author of the study, said that “[a]lthough the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program has effectively encouraged energy efficiency in buildings, tighter buildings often concentrate chemicals released from building materials, cleaning supplies, fuel combustion, pesticides and other hazardous substances.” Dr. Wargo contends that LEED should do a better job of taking into account the potential effects of these chemicals and require testing of building materials in order to incorporate more rigorous air quality standards into their ratings system.
So, are LEED-certified buildings really ‘safer’ than non-‘green’ buildings? Maybe the best answer is, we don’t know. Perhaps, as www.treehugger.com suggests, it’s “all in your head” and the excitement of moving into a new building which is supposedly built to be better for the environment produces these feelings of health and well-being. (http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/08/leed-buildings-is-the-green-all-in-your-head.php).
One recommendation from the EHHI study is that governments should categorize building products to identify materials which contain hazardous ingredients, those that are safe and those that have not been sufficiently tested in order to give people a better idea what they’re using and what to expect in terms of health results. Until greater technology exists which allows more in depth air quality monitoring, perhaps we won’t be able to know whether LEED-buildings are beneficial to human health.
A Fast Company article (http://www.fastcompany.com/1656162/are-leed-buildings-unhealthy) and the EHHI report contend that it is dangerous for people to believe they will be healthier simply because they are working or living in a building that is LEED-certified. LEED is becoming law in more states and municipalities, which arguably brings LEED into the public health realm. A false sense of security that comes with spending time in a LEED-certified building, coupled with a lack of ongoing indoor-air quality monitoring, could conceivably result in long-term health problems for those people who spend time in these buildings.
Should the fact that LEED-certified buildings may not provide a healthier work environment deter us from utilizing LEED as a tool for measuring building practices? The U.S. Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org) says “No”. Scot Horst, Senior Vice President for LEED, says “[w]e could [say that] there should be no chemicals in any building and no energy used and no water and every building should give back water and energy…We could do all that, and no one would use the rating system. We can only take the market as far as it’s willing to go.” (Scot Horst, as quoted in Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/1656162/are-leed-buildings-unhealthy)). For the USGBC to continue to build LEED as the de facto certification of for sustainable buildings, however, it will need to consider addressing the health issues as part of its review and award process. If it does not, it risks additional criticism and attacks on its usefulness as a standard, like the articles and studies mentioned herein.
This article was authored by Laura M. Walda, who is a Florida attorney and an associate with Lowndes Drosdick Doster Kantor & Reed, P.A. (www.lowndes-law.com). Commercially Green Florida is a blog authored and edited by Dale A. Burket, a Florida attorney who is Board Certified in Real Estate by The Florida Bar, and who is a partner with Lowndes Drosdick Doster Kantor & Reed, P.A.