After two years and "thousands of reports," the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) announced its findings on Polyvinyl chloride(PVC) last week. The Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC) turned over its final report to the USGBC's LEED Sterling Committee (LSC) and Board of Directors for review.

The two groups will spend the better part of six months determining policy agenda and potential actions for PVC-based products. On the surface, the findings appear to be inconclusive.

"Rather than finding a conclusion on PVC, it was like, is it better or worse than comparable building materials, and the answer is, it depends," says Taryn Holowka, USGBC's communications manager. "[The report] goes through all the various effects of PVC and alternatives. It talks about 'if this, then that.' Basically all of the analysis is done."

TSAC's draft report for public comment was presented in December 2004. Based on the comments that were submitted, analysis was expanded to address new concerns and data, including end-of-life issues such as backyard burning and landfill fires.(Burning PVC releases dioxins, highly carcinogenic toxins.)

"To do so, we investigated this question: For the applications studied, does the available evidence indicate that PVC-based materials are consistently among the worst of the alternatives studied in terms of environmental and health impacts?" Malcolm Lewis, chairman of TSAC, states in a USGBC press release responding to questioning the inclusion of a PVC-related credit in LEED. "Through the course of our intense research and study, however, we concluded that a simple yes or no answer to this question was not adequate, and a more nuanced answer that points the way to dealing with some larger issues was essential."

The TSAC report speaks to a series of policy issues raised through the extensive research. These concerns include:

  • How should risks to human health and risks to the natural environment be reconciled?
  • Should LEED offer credits for avoiding less desirable materials or create credit incentives for the use of preferable, often innovative alternative materials or processes?
  • Should LEED address individual materials through its credits or should it focus on areas of impact?

"With the report in hand, the LEED Steering Committee, which has received the report simultaneous to its release to stakeholders and the media today, will begin review of the report and its recommendations, determine which policy issues to address first, and engage USGBC's Board of Directors in that process," says Scot Horst, chairman of the LEED Steering Committee.
Horst continues, "The publication of the final TSAC report on PVC concludes one process and begins another. To that end, the LSC is meeting this afternoon to begin developing a plan and timeline for USGBC's next steps."

Horst notes that any significant changes to LEED credits that may result from this process will follow USGBC's consensus process, including public comment and USGBC member ballot.

Special Interests Groups React

Modern Plastics Worldwide magazine wrote a review of the study titled "USGBC Punts on PVC". Other organizations such as the Vinyl Institute, Healthy Building Network (HBN), and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) also voiced their opinions after the study was released, but according to Holowka, the USGBC expected more organizations to weigh in.

"It's been a lot quieter than we anticipated," Holowka admits.

In a press release, the Healthy Building Network says the TSAC report supports its organization's core PVC beliefs.

"This report affirms concerns that the environmental health community has long held about PVC that are already driving substantial market shifts," says Tom Lent, policy director for the Healthy Building Network. "The report makes important contributions to materials analysis with its accounting of human health and end-of-life impacts of building materials."

Stating that an "unhealthy material is not a healthy green material," HCWH spokesperson Stacy Malkan says her organization wants to see a credit that will address PVC, adding that it is a "bigger problem than just vinyl."

"We really need some innovation and development of the next generation of materials," she says. "I think one of the things that they got caught up in is how do you assess alternatives? We hope that the market will move in the direction of safer, non-toxic materials."

The Vinyl Institute's take on the report is that the panel only reaffirmed its earlier draft report that PVC should not be the subject of negative credits. Tim Burns , the Vinyl Institute president, calls it "the right decision."

"We agree with the need for integrated methods for material evaluation rather than passing judgment on a particular credit for a particular material," Burns tells BUILDER Online. "We hope to see a policy based both on health and environmental considerations. And it is critical that it is both.

"The policy should be based on how significant impacts can be addressed by considering issue-focused credits in green building rating tools rather than discriminating against one material or another."

Burns also is calling for a more "open, transparent process" as the new policies are developed.