What’s green enough for a LEED rating but not green enough to breathe?

November 15th, 2010

The first time I heard that concrete was considered a green building material, I was surprised. Hadn’t I heard lots of buzz about forgoing concrete walkways in favor of  stone and other pervious building materials, which are much better for storm drainage?

But the glossy brochures from the cement makers assured me that concrete was a material of choice for LEED building projects –the material of choice for green schools.  And in fact, there were now pervious varieties of concrete, so you can still use concrete on the walkways after all.

Chastened by my lack of knowledge about concrete, I dutifully added it to my ever expanding list of “eco friendly” materials. Then my bloggy friend Lisa from Retro Housewife Goes Green told the @GreenMoms about her battles with the cement plant in her hometown in Oklahoma. It seems that production of this green building material – destined for high class kitchen counters, big city buildings, and new green schools – emits some pretty noxious fumes.

And indeed, a google search quickly turned up some stories about how the EPA only recently started tightening restrictions on concrete production, which has toxic, carcenogenic byproducts such as mercury.

What ever happened to cradle-to-cradle? How can concrete be considered green by the architects, yet be a poison to those unfortunate enough to live in the shadow of the cement plants?

I’m eager to read the round-up of posts on this subject over at Retro Housewife Goes Green, and I’m especially curious about whether the architects and interior designers have used their marketplace clout to encourage the cement manufacturers to clean up their acts.

— Lynn

7 Responses to “What’s green enough for a LEED rating but not green enough to breathe?”

  1. Jennifer on November 16, 2010 5:10 am

    Could it be due to the fly ash added to concrete? My son goes to a brand new “green” preschool, Gold LEED rating. They used concrete but specifically asked for “no fly ash” concrete because they were aware of how toxic fly ash in concrete is.
    It does seem contradictory to give a LEED rating with the use of such a toxic building material.

  2. Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green on November 16, 2010 2:17 pm

    Thank you for posting this! I hope this does make some people think. I know when we don’t live by the plants that make our products it’s easy to just not think about that part but when you are 2.5 miles away you are forced to think about it.

  3. Lynn on November 16, 2010 4:27 pm

    Lisa, just like with the coal carnival, I think this will definitely make people think. Thanks for raising awareness.

  4. Lynn on November 16, 2010 4:30 pm

    Jennifer, I really am no expert on this subject. It would make sense that LEED concrete would be no fly-ash, but then wouldn’t it be promoted that way? The brochures I’ve seen don’t call that out. I think the mercury issues are still there regardless…unless the plant is run very sustainably, in keeping with new EPA guidelines. You might want to check out the round-up of posts over at Retro Housewife Goes Green. Thanks! — Lynn

  5. Colin on November 23, 2010 6:12 am

    I come from southern England, and the chalk hills around here used until recently to be popular sites for cement works, given the large amount of limestone handy.

    There certainly are environmental impacts from cement works and the fuel consumption to make cement is prodigious. There is no way I would consider it to be a green building material, if only for the huge holes it leaves in the countryside. But I have never heard of anything carcinogenic associated with cement works here, and certainly not mercury.

    Could it be that this is to do with the local geology rather than any inherent feature of cement manufacture?

    And as to how the plant Retro Housewife is talking about is emitting dioxins, I am completely baffled. Knowing how cement is made I cannot think of any way that dioxin would be produced.

    Does anyone have a link to the original report?

  6. Lynn on November 28, 2010 3:14 pm

    Hi Colin, Always nice to hear from you. As I said, I’m really new to the whole concrete issue, so I’d suggest checking with Lisa over at Retro Housewife about your questions. I know she’s done a lot of research on the EPA site. Best, Lynn

  7. Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green on November 28, 2010 9:24 pm

    Colin: It’s largely from burning tires that we get the dioxins and nasty stuff. I have the EPA info for my local plant if you want it.

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