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Balancing Act

Both organizations -- the vinyl industry and Greenpeace -- signed up with Habitat for Humanity to build quality homes for those in need.

Since its launch in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 150,000 homes worldwide. The organization, inspired by former President Jimmy Carter, is universally lauded for its stated efforts "to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world, and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action."

Two weeks ago, the environmental action group Greenpeace partnered with Habitat for Humanity to add a new wrinkle to the notion of "conscience" in that mission statement, by constructing an eco-friendly house in the St. Roch neighborhood ("Green House," March 16). In a first-ever alignment with Habitat for Humanity, Greenpeace, along with the Healthy Building Network, is sponsoring the construction of the future home of Sylvia Lewis and her children. In their sponsorship, Greenpeace and Healthy Building will fully cover the house's $55,000 price tag, plus volunteer hours. The home will be entirely free of PVC, or vinyl-based plastics.

Greenpeace hopes the house will call attention to alternative building materials. Currently, two-thirds of vinyl use comes in home construction. Vinyl or PVC is easy to install and replace, and is customarily used in siding, plumbing, floors, packaging, children's toys and elsewhere in the home. Greenpeace maintains that affordable homes can be built without vinyl, which Greenpeace toxic campaign coordinator Rick Hind calls "lethal throughout its life cycle."

Hind, who is leading the St. Roch project, says PVC is the single most environmentally damaging plastic because of its release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals. When burned, either in production at factories or as refuse in municipal incinerators, PVC releases dioxin, a toxin proven to cause cancer and reproductive disorders, among other health hazards. Dioxin, along with two other substances that are byproducts of PVC, is included among toxins to be reduced and ultimately eliminated worldwide through the POPs (Perpetually Occurring Pollutants) Treaty, signed by President George W. Bush in 2001, but as yet not ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Dioxin is an unavoidable byproduct of vinyl production and use, and it is an egregious and lethal substance. But Greenpeace's vocal sponsorship of the Habitat house has drawn criticism from the Vinyl Institute, a trade organization representing vinyl manufacturers, most of which are located in Louisiana. The industry, under the name Vinyl Partners for Humanity, has a laudable history of supporting Habitat for Humanity. Since 1995, the group has donated more than $2 million in money and vinyl products and has sponsored the construction of 14 homes between the Greater Baton Rouge and Calcasieu affiliates. The new Habitat/Greenpeace partnership has the potential to upset that relationship. In a Feb. 26 email to Habitat for Humanity founder and president Millard Fuller, Timothy Burns, president and CEO of the Vinyl Institute, writes: "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. ... I feel this media/political campaign by Greenpeace/Healthy Building Network is misusing the good value and reputation of Habitat."

The PVC industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with a strong presence in Louisiana. Environmental concerns about PVC are real, but the Vinyl Partners' longstanding commitment to Habitat qualifies as a model example of corporate citizenship. Jim Pate, the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, made the right decision when he agreed to the Greenpeace project. Pate also properly decided to invite Vinyl Partners for Humanity to sponsor a home directly across North Prieur Street from the Greenpeace-sponsored house. (The invitation has yet to be accepted.) It's important to remember that both organizations -- the vinyl industry and Greenpeace -- signed up with Habitat for Humanity to build quality homes for those in need. Throughout the current building materials controversy, that primary goal should remain everyone's focus.

Pate has headed the local Habitat for Humanity for five years and has nearly tripled the group's construction output during that time. He says he is standing firm in his commitment to Habitat's mission. "The important thing is for New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to continue our mission to get people out of substandard, poverty housing," Pate says. "We understand the concerns of Greenpeace and the Healthy Building Network, but we're just trying to get Sylvia Lewis and her family into a good home."

Among political activists, there is a saying, "If you're in a coalition and you're not uncomfortable, you're not in a wide enough coalition." Pate is now performing a necessary balancing act between industry and environmentalists for a very good reason: the building of a new home for a family who needs one. That's something we all can agree on.

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