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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Environmental Health and the Building Code

by Deborah Wallace, Ph.D., Consumers Union

The Great Reform

The building codes which we take for granted arose in various American cities in the 1880-1920 era of The Great Reform. A combination of major disasters such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and chronic public health crisis such as tuberculosis high prevalence and endemic substance abuse associated with vice dens run by landlords ensured that creation and enforcement of building codes formed a major part of the Great Reform.

The Great Reform occurred at a time of the first wave of rural-to-urban migration and truly massive transnational migration. The gross corruption at both the job site and the low income home and community created conditions leading to death, injury, and disease. The memoirs and letters of such public health giants as Alice Hamilton provide the details of the inhumanity and sheer greed.

Part of the impetus for the Great Reform was the suffering of all economic classes. Toward the end of the corrupt era, even the daughters of middle class and wealthy parents could be kidnapped and enslaved in a brothel. No one was safe from tuberculosis. No one was safe from building collapse or fire. Components of the Great Reform reflected this country's collective decision that (1) we are all in this process of citizenry together, and (2) the lives and health of every sector require certain minimal levels of protection even if this protection costs money.

Components of the Great Reform reflected this country's collective decision that (1) we are all in this process of citizenry together, and (2) the lives and health of every sector require certain minimal levels of protection even if this protection costs money.

Plastics and the Corruption of the Building and Fire Codes

The code-making process has evolved so that it has three main organizational components: organizations such as ASTM (American Society for Testing Materials) and UL (Underwriters Laboratory) which promulgate the standards on which codes are based; model code making organizations such as NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) and BOCA (Building Officials Code Association); and governmental agencies. These agencies typically are state and local building or housing departments, but the US Housing and Urban Development has its own codes. These governmental agencies determine the specifics of what is allowed in buildings within their jurisdictional geographic boundaries. Most states and localities adopt part or all of the model codes. In addition, the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has its Fire Research Center which allegedly develops methodology for testing materials and material assemblages for flammability, smoke generation, and toxicity, as well as comparing commercially available materials and material assemblages for these characteristics.

On the surface, building and fire safety appear well organized. When we look at the relationships between these governmental and quasi-governmental bodies and the plastics industry since about 1970, the picture is more like Dorian Gray's portrait. The Toxicity Committee of the NFPA is composed with one exception of scientists and engineers directly employed by plastics manufacturers or large plastics users or indirectly employed by them. The NFPA also relies heavily for technical direction on NIST's Fire Research Center which hosts plastics industry funded fellowships (the only such arrangement in the Executive Branch) and which has been a captive of the industry through funding and lobbying by the industry of key congressmen and senators. In about 1983, the head of the Fire Research Center actually described in a TV interview how Ray Monger of SPI (Society of Plastics Industries) threatened to cut off all funds for the Center by lobbying Congress.

The lobbying and organizational takeovers by the plastics companies and their trade associations result in gross degradation of fire and building codes.

Since about 1980, the science coming out of NIST's Center has become more and more bizarre. The membership of the NFPA has changed drastically from one dominated by the fire service and building safety officials to one dominated by industrial representatives. Although code changes and new code sections are drafted by committees and sometimes approved by special committees such as the Toxicity Committee, the final versions are adopted by vote at the annual meeting which now is characterized by lobbying and deal-making between industries.

The standard making bodies are subject to the same influences. The state and local governmental agencies are subjected to constant lobbying, similar to what we have been seeing with respect to health care reform and to regulation of smoking. We found a very common ploy was the industry paying a local fire official like a chief or a fire marshal to front for the industry and lobby to allow greater use of plastic in the code. In New York State, for example, the paid-off chief had been a member of the NYC Fire Officers Association which had taken a stand against use of plastics, especially PVC, in construction. We exposed that chief, and the officers union disciplined him, in time for PVC to be included in the list of chemicals for which normally time-barred toxic torts would be allowed in the new legislation on statutes of limitation for chemical exposures suits. All groups have "weak links," although the firefighters, officers, and fire marshals don't want plastics, especially PVC, in building systems, furnishings, or finishings.

Two Typical Examples

The lobbying and organizational takeovers by the plastics companies and their trade associations result in gross degradation of fire and building codes. I shall give two examples of degradation of model codes by the NFPA. Places of public assembly such as theaters, restaurants, houses of worship, and night clubs require especially stringent codes because of the numbers of potentially affected people and because of the lack of familiarity of the patrons with the place. Disasters like the Stardust Disco Fire in Dublin which killed about 125 people and the Kansas City Grand Hyatt structural collapse illustrate the need.

The NFPA's model electrical and life safety code has special sections for places of public assembly. The Committee on Toxicity under lobbying by the PVC industry recommended changes in the public assembly sections of the code to allow use of rigid and flexible PVC conduit in most places of public assembly. One of the important technical underpinnings of the recommendation was NIST's Fire Research Center's adoption of a "representative fire." This is a room fire, one which does not begin behind the wall. Tests of these PVC conduits involved simulations only of "representative" fires.

Yet, many great disasters began as electrical in-wall fires, such as the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977, the Younkers Brothers Department Store fire of 1978, and the MGM Grand Hotel fire of 1980 began as electrical in-wall fires

The second example is the weakening of the code on residential sprinkler pipe. Under lobbying by the CPVC (chlorinated PVC) pipe manufacturers, particularly B.F. Goodrich, the NFPA set as the temperature for activating residential sprinkler heads as only 135 F. Coincidentally, this is the temperature up to which the CPVC pipe can be guaranteed to retain its physical strength. This will result in many non-fire caused head activations. The NFPA allows CPVC sprinkler pipe in residences, based on the low activation temperature standard.

If citizens' reaction to false alarms from smoke detectors is any indication (one third of all installed smoke detectors are deactivated.), false activations of sprinkler heads will lead to intentional shutting down of sprinkler systems. If the pipes are metal, they pose no fire hazard. If the pipes are CPVC, they will add to the smoke toxicity of any fire to which they are significantly exposed. Because the fire service wants homes to have sprinklers, many fire departments have been sold Goodrich's bill of goods.

Watchdogging the Codes

We spend most of our lives in buildings. Our health and safety depend on the codes and on their enforcement. Plastics are being marketed to code makers as if they can be used in place of steel, cast iron, aluminum, glass, concrete, and wood. Without public scrutiny and pressure to counteract the industry lobbying, many more people will die of hydrochloric acid in fires or be plagued with serious dioxin-related illnesses if they survive.

It's time to watchdog the code makers, local code bodies, and NIST's Fire Research Center. We need another Great Reform.

For more information see: Deborah Wallace (1990) In the Mouth of the Dragon. Avery Publishing Group, 120 Old Broadway, Garden City Park NY 11040 ($17.95 + $2.50 handling) and Charlie Cray (April, 1990) "PVC: A Growing Dioxin Disaster, Waste Not, Nos. 278-279.

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