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Environmental Justice -open letter to Bill Walsh, Healthy Buildings Network

Bill Walsh of Healthy Buildings Network has posted an important message regarding the relationship of green building to issues of environmental justice and health here. In it he questions building location decisions leading to unequal distribution of risks from exposures to outdoor air pollution and industrial releases.


We have written an “open letter” to Bill thanking him and highlighting some additional environmental justice and green building issues. We have also suggested some additional resources including those on our own web site.


Dear Bill,


Thank you for "sticking your neck out" on this issue.


I would encourage you to extend the scope of the environmental justice in green buildings to include more explicitly IAQ. Since as almost everybody knows by now, we spend most of our time indoors, the question is what in outdoor air gets indoors (e.g., outdoor air pollution, industrial emissions, residual soil contaminants at or near brownfield and agriculturist sites) and what pollutants in the indoor environment originates there (e.g., consumer products such as pesticides, personal care products and cleaning products). 


One of my complaints about current mainstream "green building" thinking and conversation is the focus on the building as an island divorced from its surroundings, the importance of its location. 


Not all outdoor air pollutants enter the indoor environment in equal proportions, nor do the affect health or trigger asthma equally. There is lots of good indoor air science that addresses the rate of entry into buildings of outdoor air pollutants. 


And, of course, not all indoor air pollutants originate outdoors. In fact,consumer choices may dominate factors relevant to harmful environmental exposures in many indoor environments.


So-called "net-zero" analysis and claims ignore the importance of location in terms of the issues you addressed as well as impacts on motor vehicle use. When a site is selected, something approximating half the environmental impacts are already determined, independent of the building design and operation. I can think of several multiple-award-winning "green" or "environmentally-responsible" buildings that can only be reached by car or maybe by bicycle. A rough calculation of the energy use alone of commuting and per-occupant energy use  shows them to be approximately equal.


There are at least two types of indoor exposures that researchers claim are important asthma triggers not addressed well by only looking at outdoor air quality:  moisture and its connection to mold and exposure to mold and to VOCs emitted by mold; and "modern chemicals" such as phthalates (plasticizers) that are ubiquitous in the indoor environment. So, educating consumers (building occupants) is as important as good design. Occupant behavior dominates both energy use and IAQ.


And, as real estate agents are fond of saying, there are three important things to  know before buying a house: "location,location, location."


 Extending the environmental focus to the total environment is the only way to avoid missing important exposures and to further cause of fighting for environmental justice and health.



Here are a few additional resources to address some of these issues:


Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health


U.S. EPA Environmental Justice


The Right-to-Know network Toxic Release Database (TRI Inventory)


2030 Palettes


And of course, there are a lot of resources (available for free) on and those wanting more, they can sign up for our occasional eUpdates there.



Thanks again for all that you do,



-hal levin



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