At The School

Health of Green Buildings Questioned  

Standards used to certify buildings as environmentally friendly are insufficient to protect human health, according to a report authored by John Wargo, Ph.D. ’84, professor of environmental risk analysis and policy at F&ES.

Wargo said that although the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program has been effective in encouraging energy efficiency, well-insulated buildings often contain chemicals, in high concentrations, released from building materials, cleaning supplies, fuel combustion, pesticides and other hazardous substances. The council’s most prestigious platinum award, he says, does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of certified buildings.

“The underlying problem is that thousands of different chemicals, many of them well-recognized to be hazardous, are allowed by the federal government to become components of building materials. Very few of these chemicals have been tested to identify their toxicity, environmental fate or the danger they pose to human health,” he said.

The report, “LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides With Human Health,” was sponsored by the nonprofit Environment and Human Health (EHHI), founded by Nancy Alderman ’97. The report can be viewed at

EHHI recommends, among other things, that the board of the Green Building Council, which is composed of developers, engineers, chemical and materials manufacturers and architects, should include more experts in the area of human health and that the government should categorize building products to identify those that contain hazardous compounds, those that have been tested and found to be safe and those that have been insufficiently tested.

Students Awarded Switzer, Compton Fellowships

Three F&ES students were among 21 environmental scholars selected as Switzer Environmental Fellows by the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation. And four more students have been named Compton International Fellows for 2010-2011 by F&ES’ Tropical Resources Institute.

The $15,000 Switzer Fellowship—awarded to master’s students Stephen Blackmer ’83, Kyra Busch and Michelle Lewis—is one of the nation’s most prestigious academic awards for environmental leaders.

Over the past 25 years, Blackmer has held leadership positions with the Northern Forest Center, Northern Forest Alliance, Appalachian Mountain Club and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He already holds an F&ES master’s degree and is pursuing another one in religion and ecology. He is interested in the role of religion in social change movements.

Busch wants to make sustainable food more accessible in urban and rural areas and is interested in environmental justice, community development and sustainable food systems. In New Haven she is developing a farm-based education curriculum and is training environmental educators in her role as the public schools program coordinator for the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Lewis is pursuing a joint degree with the Yale Divinity School and is trying to connect at-risk youth and juvenile offenders to the environment through their religions using popular culture. Before joining Yale, she spent 12 years as a U.S. park ranger. 

The Compton Fellows are all first-year candidates for master’s degrees in environmental management. They each received $11,250 from the Compton Foundation, which enables students from developing countries to conduct research on the environment and sustainable development that has a link to the fields of peace and security and population and reproductive health.

Geofrey Mwanjela is conducting research on protected areas and their impact on the livelihoods of local communities in Tanzania. Ana Perea is working on how best to engage local communities in Mexico in the conservation and restoration of natural resources. Giancarlo Raschio is planning a comparative study of climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives in Ghana and Peru. And Pablo Reed is researching whether the lands of indigenous communities in Ecuador could benefit from Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a program designed to use financial incentives to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.

F&ES has had more than 60 Compton Fellows from 28 countries since 1995. “The Compton Fellowship program is a unique resource that helps F&ES attract students from developing countries and supports them in conducting cutting-edge research in and around their home countries,” said Michael Dove, director of the Tropical Resources Institute and Margaret K. Musser Professor of Social Ecology.

Microbes Contributing Less to Climate Warming

The physiology of microbes living underground could determine the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from soils on a warmer Earth, according to a study published online in Nature Geoscience.

Researchers at UC Irvine, Colorado State University and F&ES have found that as global temperatures increase, microbes in soil become less efficient over time in converting carbon in soil into carbon dioxide, which is a key contributor to climate warming.

Microbes, in the form of bacteria and fungi, use carbon for energy to breathe, or respire, and to grow in size and in number. A model developed by the researchers shows microbes exhaling carbon dioxide furiously for a short period of time in a warmer environment, leaving less carbon for growth. As warmer temperatures persist, the less-efficient use of carbon by the microbes causes them to decrease in number, eventually resulting in less carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.

“Microbes aren’t the destructive agents of global warming that scientists had previously believed,” said Steven Allison, lead author of the study and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Irvine. “Microbes function like humans; they take in carbon-based fuel and breathe out carbon dioxide. They are the engines that drive carbon cycling in soils. In a balanced environment, plants store carbon in the soil and microbes use that carbon to grow. The microbes then produce enzymes that convert soil carbon into atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

The study, “Soil-Carbon Response to Warming Dependent on Microbial Physiology,” contradicts the results of older models that assume that microbes will continue to spew ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the climate continues to warm. The new simulations suggest that if microbial efficiency declines in a warmer world, carbon dioxide emissions will fall back to pre-warming levels, a pattern seen in field experiments. But if microbes manage to adapt to the warmth—for instance, through increases in enzyme activity—emissions could intensify.

“When we developed a model based on the actual biology of soil microbes, we found that soil carbon may not be lost to the atmosphere as the climate warms,” said Matthew Wallenstein, of the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University. “Conventional ecosystem models that didn’t include enzymes did not make the same predictions.”

Mark Bradford, assistant professor of terrestrial ecosystem ecology at F&ES, said there is intense debate in the scientific community over whether the loss of soil carbon will contribute to global warming. “The challenge we have in predicting this is that the microbial processes causing this loss are poorly understood,” he said. “More research in this area will help reduce uncertainties in climate prediction.”

Doctoral Student Receives Award

Philip Marshall, an F&ES doctoral student, recently received the Emanuel D. Rudolph Award by the Botanical Society of America. The award is given by the historical section of the society for the best student presentation or poster of an historical nature at the annual meetings. Marshall’s presentation was “Pinus strobus L. and the historical utilization and management of southern New England forests, 1600-1938.”

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