Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Green" In All The Wrong Ways

Can sustainability make you sick? If you work in a LEED-certified building, the answer may be 'yes.' On May 25th, Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), a non-profit organization composed of doctors, public health professionals, and policy experts who specialize in research that examines environmental threats to human health, released a report entitled “LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides With Human Health.” The gist of the report was that by taking steps to reduce the exchange of air between the building and the exterior in pursuit of energy efficiency, LEED-certified buildings can concentrate chemicals released from building materials, cleaning supplies, fuel combustion, pesticides and other hazardous substances. Pedictably this led to a robust response from the U.S. Green Building Council, which believes that it is LEED buildings, rather than the LEED standards themselves, that need to be improved. Expect this one to run and run.

For museums, and particularly museum collections, this is a critical issue. Museum collection facilities are energy hogs - in pursuit of a stable environment for our specimens, we set stringent requirements for HVAC. Running counter to this is a feeling that museums, and in particular natural history museums, should be taking a lead in responsible use of resources. Most of the ongoing debate in our sector at the moment is focussing on whether we can afford to relax some of the existing environmental standards for specimen conservation. But we may be missing a bigger issue. Our collections, some of which have specimens with high levels of residual pesticides, or are preserved or prepared with noxious fluids, or which may emit radon and other naturally occurring radioactivity, present a variety of human health risks. Sustainability is a good thing, but we can't afford to achieve it at the cost of the health of our visitors and workers.


  1. Sigh. We try to do right, and we end up taking two steps backwards--for ourselves, our collections and our field. Good to know about, though.

  2. I guess the issue is not so much can you make a building sustainable, but can you make it achieve the goals that you want - a safe environment for both people and collections - in a sustainable way? Obviously it's a balancing act, but it's important to realize that optimizing energy efficiency is not necessarily the most sustainable solution.