A lead pipe cinch: Sponsored posts are a bad idea


I really wrote this post for TreeHugger, but it probably is not a good idea to write such a thing attacking another green website on my bully pulpit. But I wanted to get it out so I put it here. 

It is really hard to make a living on the internet these days. TreeHugger lives off Google ads that readers often complain are inappropriate; Other sites have experimented with other methods, including one called “sponsored content.” They look like articles. In fact, as Derek Thompson of the Atlantic describes it:

To be perfectly clear: Making advertisements look more like articles is precisely the point of this new format. Digital ads have rather obvious limitations. Banners in squares and rectangles paint the strike zone of the webpage, practically begging readers to throw their attention down the middle and ignore everything else. So some media companies are experimenting with advertisements that take the form of clickable, sharable web pages.

A green website on my Feedly reader recently did a sponsored comment story on PVC plastic in building. When it went up, it looked like a regular article, and you had to read to the bottom to see “sponsored content”; now it says “Guest Post” at the top and the whole story is in block quotes, as if they are backing away from it. For good reason.

The story, titled “PVC’s Resilience and Its Foreseeable Future”; is written by Alan Matchett, who appears to be a Director of IPSL, a British manufacturer of plastic panels,which was the sponsor of the post.

The article starts with a word, Not Mr. Mcguire’s “Plastics” but “Durability.” Matchett makes it sound like environmentalists hate PVC because it lasts a long time.

Its near-indestructibility, an undeniable advantage at times, is the very thing that has seen its use dogged by controversy, a controversy that’s not likely to disappear any time soon as PVC’s popularity continues to grow.Environmentalists warn of the undesirability, indeed danger they would argue, of a material that, decades after the end of its working life, will not have degraded even slightly, let alone bio-degraded.

REALLY? perhaps in diapers or packaging, but not in building materials. When practicing as an architect, I tended to try and specify things that lasted a long time. But never mind.

As a well-known television ad from years gone by used to warn us: “Here comes the science part”: PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride. Chlorine! The very mention of it is enough to send the most placid of eco-warriors into a placard-waving fury.

Any article that has the “here comes the science part” is automatically flagged, it’s a standard trope to indicate that the placard-waving eco-warriors don’t know what they are talking about.

It is, they argue, a hazardous, poisonous, gas used in everything from chemical weapons to CFCs to DDT pesticides, none of them seen as exactly friends of the environment. But less than a third of Europe’s chlorine production actually goes into PVC and, while the industry accepts it IS a hazardous material, it points out that there hasn’t been a single fatal accident involving its transport in Europe in half a century.

Isn’t that convenient, half a century in Europe. Nine killed in America in 2007, and 30 killed in Iraq when a chlorine tanker was blown up. We won’t talk about the unfortunate business in the trenches of Europe 100 years ago. Then there is the small matter of the by-products of chlorine production; according to the USGBC:

Worldwide, 24 percent of chlorine production in 1997 occurred at plants using mercury, and in 2000 there were about 100 mercury chloralkali plants in operation.In the US, ten facilities use the mercury process, accounting for 10 percent of the nation’s chlorine production. In 2000,these plants released over 12,500 pounds of mercury to the environment.Tests of wastewater at mercury chloralkali plants in Europe showed that it contained 1.6 to 7.6 milligrams of mercury per liter.

And then there are the additives.

Cancer fears also surround some of the chemicals and additives used in PVC. But, as so often with these things, scientific opinion is deeply divided. One report concluded that it was just as safe to eat off a piece of lead-stabilised PVC pipe as off a ceramic plate.

Right, we won’t talk about phthalates here, let’s look a that odd statement, “One report concluded that it was just as safe to eat off a piece of lead-stabilised PVC pipe as off a ceramic plate.” Google it and it comes up again and again, all leading back to a 1995 study done for the Nordic Plastic Pipe Association. Most references are followed with lines like “However, in line with the Voluntary Commitment, the pipes industry has phased out lead stabilisers in potable water pipes from 2003 onwards, and it also seems likely that the windows industry will phase out lead stabilisers well before the 2015 target date.” Reason? According to this report,

In 2000, an estimated 10 kilotons of lead entered the waste stream from PVC. Although lead use in PVC products has been declining, the long life of many of these products suggests they will be a source of lead in the waste stream for years to come.

That line about eating off a lead pipe is not good salesmanship.

The author concludes, after calling most objections to PVC “urban myths”:

..There is growing evidence that more and more consumers as well as builders are embracing PVC in more and more ways. The once utilitarian, somewhat dowdy material tucked out of sight as U-bends or drains has reinvented itself as a chic, clean, minimalist adornment taking pride of place in the living areas, kitchens and bathrooms of modern homes. The controversy it seems has done it little harm.

REALLY? This is why the American Chemistry Council and the plastics industry is doing everything it can to shut down LEED because it raises questions about plastics like PVC. It is red-listed under major certification systems. The green building world is moving away from it fast and furious. How can one say:

The construction industry continues to embrace what it sees as a tried and tested, adaptable and cost-effective material with a virtually endless array of uses.

Tell that to the president of Skanska USA, part of one of the biggest construction companies in the world, who says in the Washington post:

Let’s be clear: What the chemical industry and its cronies want is not a new standard that will improve energy efficiency and green building programs. What they want is a standard they can manipulate and weaken. They are putting their bottom lines first and social responsibility second.

This started as a discussion of sponsored posts; I wanted to compare it to the famous sponsored post by Scientology in the Atlantic. It’s worse. To paraphrase that famous line by Mary McCarthy about Lillian Hellman on the Dick Cavett show, “every word is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

2 thoughts on “A lead pipe cinch: Sponsored posts are a bad idea

  1. Another recent post also in Green Building Elements left me wondering about its origin: “The Benefits of Composite Material”

    The post is notably lacking in discussing the environmental downsides of composites, e.g. recycling.

    It says it’s by “GBE Facts,” and the only other clue is the concluding (and grammatically problematic) sentence: “Companies such as Dura Composites have made a commitment to reducing the environmental impact of their products, the proud sponsor of this post.” It lacks even the closing note in the PVC post.

    I think it may be time to remove GBE from my RSS Reader.

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