As it stands now ‹ a wood frame resting on an elevated concrete foundation ‹ the future three-bedroom, one-bath home of Shylia Lewis and her four children isn't much different from the four other houses that New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity is constructing in the St. Roch neighborhood.
But it is. Controversy is swirling around the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, a renowned nonprofit builder of homes for those in need. In a first-ever partnership, Lewis' future home comes fully funded by the environmental action group Greenpeace, on the condition that environment-friendly materials be used. Of top concern to Greenpeace is PVC (polyvinyl chloride), ubiquitous in homes either as vinyl siding or PVC pipes. Greenpeace calls vinyl an egregious, cancer-causing pollutant, and the local Habitat for Humanity's partnership with Greenpeace and the anti-PVC Healthy Building Network has drawn the ire of the vinyl industry ‹ a major force in Louisiana and an entrenched and valued supporter of Habitat nationwide and especially in Baton Rouge.
"All Habitat affiliates are autonomous; we have violated no policy," says New Orleans Area Executive Director Jim Pate. "(Habitat executives at the Georgia headquarters) have told me they were not sure they would have made the decision that I made. But it's my decision to make."
Pate has been in discussion with top Habitat officials in the wake of protests voiced by the Vinyl Institute (VI), a trade organization representing vinyl manufacturers ‹ all of which, except for one, operate in Louisiana and Texas. The Vinyl Partners for Humanity, a group under the Vinyl Institute's umbrella, donates money, volunteers and supplies such as vinyl siding and PVC pipes for Habitat homes and to date has built 100 homes for the Greater Baton Rouge affiliate. Timothy Burns, president and CEO of the Vinyl Institute, cites those accomplishments in an email sent Feb. 26 to Millard Fuller, president and founder of Habitat for Humanity International. Burns also writes: "I want to make you aware of a situation with your New Orleans affiliate that I feel violates the spirit and value of Habitat. Š The sponsors of one of the homes, Greenpeace and the Healthy Building Network, are using this wonderful occasion not so much to celebrate affordable housing as to bash a building material that they do not like. Š They could ‹ and should ‹ be talking about the materials they are using and why those materials will help make their house livable, durable, affordable, etc., for a wonderful and deserving family. Š I feel this media/political campaign by Greenpeace/Healthy Building Network is misusing the good value and reputation of Habitat."
"We're used to debates with them," says Rick Hind, Greenpeace's toxic campaign legislative director and leader of the St. Roch project. "What we object to is their not-so-subtle intimidation of Habitat. If they want to make donations, that's great. They're a multi-billion-dollar industry."
Burns denies his email to Habitat president Millard Fuller contained any sort of threat to remove Vinyl Partners for Humanity support. "When you read the letter, it's clear that we feel everyone is welcome to participate with Habitat and build homes of all types of building materials. We have open arms for anyone that would work with Habitat."
PVC has recently become one of the most widely used plastics, found in packaging, home furnishings, children's toys, building materials, car parts and hundreds of other products. According to Hind, PVC is the single most environmentally damaging plastic because of its release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals that build up in water supplies, air and the food chain through its production, use and disposal. Resultant health problems include cancer, immune system damage and hormone disruption. "Vinyl is lethal throughout its life-cycle." Hind says.
For environmentalists, of chief concern in Louisiana is PVC production. Though Hind and Greenpeace helped stop the manufacturer Shintech from building an expansive, $700 million vinyl plant 30 miles upriver in Convent, the industry remains very active in Louisiana, with clusters around Baton Rouge and Lake Charles.
According to data self-reported by industry officials in the 1998 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report The Toxics Release Inventory, chemical manufacturers in the state released 130,000 pounds of the carcinogen vinyl chloride into the environment. That same report found Louisiana ranking second among the states in discharges to surface waters, third in non-point air releases, second in the amount of waste injected into the ground, and ninth in total chemical releases.
PVC's toxins are also released in the home, according to Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute's report Phasing Out PVC. The report found that 2002 PVC sales in the United States and Canada totaled 14.4 billion pounds, or 46 pounds per person. Construction applications constitute two-thirds of all PVC use, which is favored because it's both cheap and easy to install and replace; vinyl is now favored in many cases over traditional materials such as wood, concrete and clay. In the home, it's also found in flooring, wiring, furniture, blinds and, of course, vinyl siding.
The chief concern is that when PVC burns, some 100 different toxic compounds are produced. A fire-retardant substance, PVC smolders rather than burns quickly. Although this can slow down a house fire, it allows for the release of dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known, found to cause cancer and reproductive disorders. The corrosive gas hydrogen chloride is also released in a PVC fire. Disposing of PVC also poses problems. PVC's release of dioxin during incineration makes it the largest source of chlorine and dioxin in municipal waste incinerators.
"PVC is so heavily used in our society right now, you won't find a single person in the United States that doesn't have traces of dioxin in their system," Hind says. "What level of dioxin is safe, we really don't know."
Vinyl Institute president Burns declined comment on the health effects of dioxins.
In 2001, the United Nations-backed Stockholm Convention treaty called for the phase-out and subsequent elimination of 12 "super-toxic" chemicals, including three that are byproducts of the PVC manufacturing process. Known commonly as the POPs (Perpetually Occurring Pollutants) Treaty, it was signed by then-EPA chief Christine Whitman and later by President George W. Bush, but still lacks ratification by the Senate.
"We know you can't snap your fingers and change the world," Hind says. "But we should, with PVC, follow the example of lead and asbestos and eliminate its use. The POPs Treaty is our best hope to remove PVC globally. But right now, our efforts are focused on the marketplace."
With a tight $55,000 budget for building Lewis' home, Greenpeace and Healthy Building Networks are working to showcase alternative materials to construct a home that is both affordable and eco-friendly. "This house is the first of its kind," Hind says. "We're going to learn a lot about better ways to build better homes from it."
Hardy board will be used for the house's frame, as opposed to vinyl siding, which is used in the other four Habitat houses in the 2700 block of North Prieur Street between St. Roch Avenue and Music Street. (The St. Roch neighborhood, in the 8th Ward, is outside Historic District Landmarks Commission territory and is thus free from architectural codes that don't allow vinyl siding.) In addition, Greenpeace is bringing its "Rolling Sunlight" power truck, which provides solar power for all building uses.
Greenpeace makes no attempt to hide the political agenda tied to construction of the home; in fact, screenings of an anti-PVC documentary titled Blue Vinyl are being planned around New Orleans timed to the construction, which is planned for March 18 to April 17. The Sierra Club and Advocates for Environmental Human Rights are also participating in the build, the latter a Mid City-based nonprofit public interest law firm. The role of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) underscores the cause of environmental justice tied to the project. The firm is currently representing citizens of the historic African-American community Mossville in litigation against vinyl manufacturers there, and seeks to highlight the disproportionate ill-effects of industry and pollution of poor and black communities across the state.
"These communities may not always be poor, but you can bet that they're always people of color," says Monique Harden, an attorney with AEHR.
According to AEHR research, the percentage of households below the poverty line that reside near vinyl-producing plants is 181 percent above the national average and 22 percent above state average. The percentage of those communities that are non-white is 237 percent greater than the national average and 43 percent greater than the state average. In 1993, the Louisiana State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on environmental racism in the state. It concluded that "many black communities located along the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are disproportionately impacted by the present state and local government system for permitting and expansion of hazardous waste and chemical facilities."
In Mossville, where most residents live within 100 feet of vinyl manufacturer Georgia Gulf's facility, studies show residents have three times the level of dioxin in their blood compared to the national average. "Not coincidentally, a number of vinyl industries operate in their community," Harden says of Mossville residents, who have since formed Mossville for Environmental Action Now (MEAN), a group that will volunteer at least one weekend at the St. Roch building site. "These industries have admitted that they do create dioxin. And we know the threat of dioxin: brain and liver cancer, extensive damage to the human hormone system, reproductive problems. You would think when all this information comes out, action would happen. But nothing has happened."
Vinyl Institute president Burns maintains that his organization is concerned about the environment. "Our member businesses are committed to an improved environment, and we're doing a good job at it." He also says that despite his email about Greenpeace, he welcomes environmental groups into the Habitat for Humanity fold. "We're actually quite flattered that Greenpeace is imitating us by partnering with Habitat," Burns says. "We hope it's not just a one-shot deal, that they continue to build houses for Habitat."
Burns declined comment on an invitation from local Habitat director Jim Pate to sponsor a house directly across the street from Greenpeace's house. Jazz musician Harry Connick Jr. is also sponsoring two houses on the block; sponsorship requires full funding.
For his part, Pate distances himself from the battle between the Vinyl Institute and Greenpeace. "We build more than houses, we work to build communities," he says. "Worldwide, Habitat does look at the effects of construction on a larger level. The example here is we don't build scatter-site housing; we try to revitalize an area. It's our variation of 'think locally, act globally.' And we're always interested in using the safest, most environmentally friendly products."
Pate adds that "there's no indication" in the email from Burns to Fuller that Vinyl Partners for Habitat will remove their support.
"The important thing is for New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to continue our mission to get people out of substandard housing," Pate says. "That's our primary mission. We understand the concerns of Greenpeace and Healthy Building Network, but we're just trying to get Shylia Lewis and her family into a good home."