You are probably asking yourself, 'Why was this question asked?' and 'How does it relate to green building products?' I asked the question because it can be a tough subject to talk about when presented by a child, just as questions about material safety, sustainability, and environmental awareness can be tough topics. In this series, we will deliver facts on a range of topics that truly deserve broader awareness.
Not All Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are Created Equal
Today, we will explore the hazy topic of VOCs and why you should be concerned about them. You may have heard about VOCs in paint commercials stating that the products are low or zero-VOC paints. Those commercials don't explain what VOCs are, or why you should purchase low or zero-VOC paint.
First, let's start with a definition of VOCs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines VOCs as "any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions"1. This definition is written from a regulatory standpoint, so that the EPA can regulate industrial release of chemicals that create smog. Smog is created when VOCs, in the presence of sunlight, react with nitrogen oxides and form ozone2.
You are probably asking yourself, 'What does that have to do with products that I use in my home?' Well, from an indoor air quality (IAQ) standpoint, it doesn't - certain solvents are exempted. Companies can use these exempted solvents in products and still label them as zero-VOC even though the solvents still evaporate into the air, cause indoor air pollution, and can impact your health.
Indoor Vs Outdoor VOCs
As I stated above, the government regulates VOCs on the basis of that compound reacting and producing smog, but that definition doesn't fit well from an IAQ standpoint. Let's examine the first word in VOC to help us find a better definition.
The "V" stands for volatile, which means that under normal temperature and atmospheric conditions a chemical will readily evaporate into the atmosphere. A more useful definition of VOCs is "organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. Their high vapor pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the compound and enter the surrounding air3." The creation of smog has no bearing on this definition, but the more important take away is that the chemical evaporates into the air that you breathe. Breathing in these chemicals can impact your health. Let's take a look at some of the common VOCs and their sources.
VOCs can be found in numerous household cleaning and maintenance products and created from activities such as cooking and burning wood. They can also be found in many building materials, cabinetry, and furnishings. Here is a list of common VOCs and where you are likely to find them:
Formaldehyde (carcinogen4) - Engineered wood products (OSB, plywood) glues, adhesives, combustion (natural gas, cigarettes, auto emissions), and varnishes5
Acetone (EPA exempt) - Paints, paint thinner, varnishes, super glue, nail polish, nail polish remover, and some industrial strength cleaners6
Benzene (carcinogen7) - Gasoline, combustion (cigarette smoke, petro chemical), paints, adhesives8
Toluene - Auto emissions, paints, paint thinners, adhesives, nail polish, and cigarette smoke9
Perchloroethylene - Dry cleaning, paint strippers, stain removers10
The health effects of VOCs can vary from each chemical; however most VOCs have similar acute health effects. The most common effects are "conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, vomiting, nose bleeding, fatigue, and dizziness"3. Although a quick remedy for these effects is removing yourself from exposure, you might not be able to do that if the source of your exposure is your home.
The long term health effects can be downright scary. With continued exposure to formaldehyde, benzene or both in combination you could develop cancer. Other long term health effects not limited to benzene or formaldehyde are liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage11. These are the effects known due to current research. As more research is done, then the list of effects could get longer. Also, research needs to be conducted on how combinations of VOCs affect the body. Currently, this is a mystery that research will have to solve.
It is obvious that zero-VOC does not necessarily mean truly healthy for you, your home, your family, or your office. Unless you are a scientist, this nuanced topic of chemicals and regulations should seem polluted. Making smart, healthy decisions and purchases should not feel like a research project. The good news is that better alternatives for home and office products are readily available here in the American marketplace. Using keywords like "healthy" and "non-toxic" when searching for products online is a great first step. Also, look for products that have certification labels that address material toxicity and IAQ e.g. GREENGUARD Gold, Green Wise & SCS Indoor Advantage. And if you are still unsure about a product, look for language on the label that says: "WARNING!" "CAUTION!" "DANGER" or "KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN". These are solid indications that you can find a healthier option.
If you need more direction in your quest for healthy building materials, then places such as green│spaces, which is a non-profit organization that promotes sustainability, and Green's Eco Build & Design, an eco-friendly building supply retailer, can help expand your knowledge and further your quest for products that can make the difference that you are looking for.