Green Building News

Green Building News January 2003

January 16, 2003

January is National Radon Action Month

Approximately one home in 15 across the U.S. has unacceptably high radon levels. In some areas of the country, up to half of homes have high levels. To stimulate people to learn if their homes are posing a risk to their health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared January National Radon Action Month. The first step they suggest is testing your home for radon gas, one of the leading causes of lung cancer in the country.

"As many as 22,000 people die from lung cancer each year in the United States from exposure to indoor radon,” said Christine Whitman, EPA Administrator. "Yet Americans could help prevent these deaths and protect their families by testing their homes for radon as soon as possible. Not only is radon testing a sound investment in the long-term health of your family," Whitman added, "but it could also be a good investment in terms of the resale value of your home. In many areas, radon testing is a required part of real estate transactions."

Since the passage of the Indoor Radon Abatement Act of 1988, EPA has provided more than $10 million annually to states and other public health and consumer protection organizations to help promote public awareness about the importance of radon testing. About 20 million homes are estimated to have administered radon tests, about 700,000 homes with elevated radon levels have been fixed and about 1 million new homes have been built with radon-resistant features.

Radon levels can soar during the colder months when residents keep windows and doors closed and spend more time indoors. Radon can also be a danger in summer when homes are closed tight for air conditioning purposes.

Radon, a radioactive product of the element radium, is invisible and odorless and occurs naturally in soil, rock and ground water across the country. Although relatively harmless when diluted in the open air, radon can pose a serious health threat when concentrated indoors. When inhaled, radon releases small bursts of energy that can damage the DNA in lung tissue over time and lead to lung cancer.

Radon test kits, sold at home improvement and hardware stores, are easy to use and provide accurate readings of home radon levels. EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that homes with radon levels of 4 pCi/L (picoCurries per liter of air) or higher pose a danger and should be fixed by an experienced contractor. For help in finding a contractor near you, visit EPA's radon Web site and click on “find a qualified radon service professional.”

Although some areas of the country have naturally higher radon levels than others, EPA recommends that everyone test their home because isolated radon "hot spots" can occur anywhere. EPA also recommends testing in schools, work places, community centers and other buildings where people spend long periods of time.


Solar Panels Installed on the White House Grounds

With 500-KW solar electric installations popping up around the U.S., a relatively small nine KW system wouldn't seem like news. The news is the address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A maintenance building on the White House grounds is now sporting a photovoltaic system. It's the first time that photovoltaics have been installed at this location, although solar water heating panels were first placed on the main building during the Carter Administration.

"We believe in these technologies, and they've been working for us very successfully," said James Doherty, the architect and project manager at the National Park Service Office for White House Liaison. "The National Park Service as a whole has long been interested in both sustainable design and renewable energy sources. We also have a mission to lower our energy consumption at all our sites, and we saw an opportunity to do both at the White House grounds."

"The Park Service is supporting the use of clean, renewable energy from the sun by overseeing this installation. It's an important milestone in building awareness for solar energy usage in residential and commercial buildings, and a step in the right direction in promoting energy independence," said Steven J. Strong, President of Solar Design Associates and an internationally noted solar advocate.

Solar Design Associates designed and oversaw the installation, which was placed on the roof of the main building used for White House grounds maintenance. The PV system directly feeds solar-generated power into the White House grounds' distribution system, providing electricity wherever it is needed. Two solar thermal systems, one to heat the pool and spa and one to provide domestic hot water, were also installed.

The grid-tied PV system consists of 167 solar panels manufactured by Evergreen Solar that cover the roof of the maintenance facility. The entire system installation was completed over a three-day period and includes a data acquisition system for monitoring the performance of the array and its ancillary electronic components.

Solar Design Associates selected Evergreen Solar to supply the PV panels for the project due to the superior quality of the panels and the fact that they were made in America. "Evergreen Solar is the classic, homegrown success story, where a small group of dedicated individuals, starting from modest beginnings in a 'garage,' proved the commercial viability of their technology, and subsequently have become a significant player in the global solar market," said Strong.


Wood Dust on List of Carcinogens

In December, the federal government published its biennial Report on Carcinogens. These new listings bring the total of substances in the report, "known" or "reasonably anticipated" to pose a cancer risk, to 228. In addition to metals and chemicals with long complicated names, the list includes wood dust as a "known human carcinogen." Wood dust is particularly prevalent in sawmills, furniture manufacture and cabinet making. According to the report, unprotected workers have a higher risk of cancers of the nasal cavities and sinuses.

This, the tenth edition of the report, was forwarded to Congress and released to the public by the Department of Health and Human Services. It was prepared by the National Toxicology Program, an arm of the HHS located at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, one of the National Institutes of Health. The reports are published every two years after lengthy study and scientific reviews by three successive expert panels of government and non-government scientists.


Home Depot Reports Progress on Pledge

Home Depot said they have made progress on eliminating products from old growth forests, according to a news story published by the Associated Press. Among the accomplishments cited are a 70 percent reduction in Indonesian lauan and a move to buy redwood from companies promoting sustainable forests.

In response, the Rainforest Action Network published a statement saying the company's progress was "impressive" and that their sales of certified wood had "dramatically increased." However, they noted that Home Depot had not yet taken the final and most important step of moving the wood products market toward more sustainable practices.

Roger Dower, president of the U.S. branch of the Forest Stewardship Council, was quoted in the AP article, saying "They are ahead of the pack in terms of moving along that road. Is there further to go? I suppose there will always be further to go."


Study Reports Tankless Water Heaters Save Energy

Heating household water with a tankless (demand) water heater and parallel piping can save about 26 percent compared to a storage water and tree-type plumbing. These results are based on a study conducted by the NAHB Research Center. Direct testing and computer simulations were used to investigate a number of arrangements. One significant difference between the two systems was the plumbing material and layout. The storage water heater was connected to conventional copper laid out in a typical tree arrangement. On the other hand, the tankless heater was connected to pipes made from cross-linked polyethylene and connected to a parallel pipe arrangement, in which each of the five water use points was supplied with a separate line.

Two water-usage patterns were used in the week-long experiments and in the annual simulations: one representing a high-usage home and the other representing a low-usage home. While the tankless heater/parallel plumbing combination beat the conventional water heater in all cases, the low-use pattern showed considerably higher savings (34 percent) compared to the high use pattern (14 percent). Researchers also simulated a point-of-use approach in which tankless heaters were located near sinks, baths and showers. This approach resulted in simulated savings of 50 percent in the low-use pattern and 28 percent for high use.

The report, "Performance Comparison of Residential Hot Water Systems", is available as a PDF from the NAHB Research Center.


Vermont Law May Prompt Nationwide Labeling of Fluorescent Lamps

It's a perfect example of thinking globally and acting locally. Fluorescent lamp makers, including General Electric, Slyvania and Phillips, will soon be required by Vermont law to label all lamps containing mercury sold in the sate. Yet many lamp makers are now expected to label all of the lamps sold across the U.S., according to recent news accounts attributed to their representatives.

"Mercury pollution is both a local and a global problem," said Michael T. Bender, Director of the Mercury Policy Project and an activist who worked on getting the 1998 Vermont mercury law passed, "and we aren't going to be able to solve this problem until local communities, governments and national and multinational companies -- one way or the other -- work to get this dangerous toxin out of our products and our bodies."

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing lamp manufacturers, argued in court that the 1998 Vermont mercury labeling law violated the federal Commerce Clause as well as other Constitutional provisions and federal law. While NEMA won the first round in court, it lost in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and again when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its case.

Although all industries selling fluorescent light bulbs instate have not yet complied, rules adopted by the State of Vermont required businesses selling mercury-containing lamps to submit final labeling plans by December 15th. After Nov. 30, 2003, all lamps containing mercury sold in Vermont must be labeled, according to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. By that time next year, all lamp manufacturers are also required to label lamp packaging and provide a Web site and toll free number for consumers to readily obtain information on recycling and proper management of spent light bulbs.

Lamps sales in Vermont account for less than $2 million worth of fluorescent lamps purchased annually and represent a tiny percentage of lamp sales nationally. All other manufacturers of mercury-containing products -- including makers of thermostats, thermometers and switches -- accepted the Vermont mercury labeling law.

Mercury is a highly toxic and widespread contaminant that has resulted in fish consumption advisories for mercury in over 40 states. Recent data released by the CDC indicates that 8 percent of women of childbearing age in the U.S. have mercury levels in their bodies that exceed federal agency guidelines, placing over 300,000 babies at risk each year from mercury exposure. The FDA recently warned pregnant women and young children to not eat certain seafood due to high mercury levels.


Oregon Land Use Watchdog Announces Awards

Two innovative building projects were among the winners of 1000 Friends of Oregon annual awards. This year 1000 Friends presented two awards focused on the theme of community to emphasize that community and neighborhood building are fundamental elements of “smart growth.”

“The success of Oregon’s pioneering land use planning program depends on the commitment of Oregonians to protecting our farm and forest land and building communities that we are proud to call home,” said Evan Manvel, Director of Education and Research for 1000 Friends. “These awards honor citizens who have distinguished themselves through their dedication to making Oregon a better place to live, both today and in the future.”

The Bank of Astoria was honored for its Manzanita branch, an outstanding commercial infill development project that integrates smart development and community sustainability. This innovative architectural project, designed by Tom Bender, features efficient use of both land and energy. Community activism was instrumental in bringing the Bank of Astoria to Manzanita, and the bank used local resources -- including the architect, builders and artists -- to create a magnificently crafted and inspiring human-scale building. This community bank truly embodies the spirit of community lending and community-based values.

The nonprofit Hacienda Community Development Corporation was honored for its work in developing the Baltazar F. Ortiz Community Center and several nearby affordable housing projects in Northeast Portland. Established in 1992, Hacienda CDC empowers and develops the potential of the Latino community by integrating access to health, education and social programs with safe and affordable housing.

The Ortiz Community Center combines community revitalization efforts with smart growth principles such as land efficiency, affordable housing and access to multiple transportation options. The center and the affordable housing projects were designed with cultural sensitivity by Carleton Hart Architects in their detailing, color, and provision of gardens, play areas for children, pleasant walkways and welcoming entries. Located along Killingsworth Street, a major transit corridor, the completed projects are part of a broader neighborhood master plan including the renovation of 178 units of Villa de Clara Vista and 71 new units combined at Villa de Sueños and Los Jardines de la Paz. The community center includes a health clinic as well as counseling, educational and youth facilities. Sustainable elements include indoor/outdoor spaces, day-lighting, passive solar, recycling of construction materials and on-site storm-water treatment.

This ambitious project at the heart of the re-emerging Cully neighborhood has transformed one of the most crime-ridden areas in Portland. The project has been a catalyst for strengthening neighborhood stability and safety.

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