Where Do Babies Come From?

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.

Issue 2:
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.

 

Common VOCs

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

Health Impact

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.

Conclusion

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. 

Sources

1.     http://www3.epa.gov/ttn/emc/facts.html

2.     http://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/english/environmentinhk/air/prob_solutions/vocs_smog.html

3.     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volatile_organic_compound

4.     http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol88/mono88.pdf

5.     http://enhs.umn.edu/current/5103/air/formaldehyde.html

6.     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetone#Domestic_and_other_niche_uses

7.     http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/intheworkplace/benzene

8.     http://www.who.int/ipcs/features/benzene.pdf

9.     http://www3.epa.gov/airtoxics/hlthef/toluene.html

10.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrachloroethylene

11.  http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/voc/

Where Do Babies Come From?

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.

Issue 1: Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
Today, we will explore the topic of indoor air quality (IAQ) and why you should be concerned about it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • Americans spend 90% or more of their time indoors1
  • Levels of indoor air pollutants may be 2-5 times higher, and in some instances 100 times higher than outdoor levels1

The first statistic is not a surprise considering we spend about 7-8 hrs sleeping, another 8 hrs at work, an hour commuting, an hour eating, an hour cooking, an hour watching TV, etc. As you see, time spent indoors adds up quickly. The second statistic may catch you by surprise. You may be asking yourself, "Why does indoor air contain higher amounts of pollutants than outside air?" The answer is fairly simple, but multiple factors contribute to the answer.

Building Construction
New buildings are built tight to increase energy efficiency. This offers a recurring monthly savings by lowering your energy bill. However, it also offers stagnant air if an adequate ventilation system was not installed or if natural ventilation is not used regularly. Ventilation systems are important because they cycle indoor air with outdoor air, which stops pollutants from building up to unhealthy levels2.

Sources of Pollutants
Pollutants come from a variety of sources. The EPA states that, "combustion sources, building materials and furnishings, household cleaning products, maintenance products, personal care products, hobby products, central heating and cooling systems, humidification devices, and outdoor sources such as radon, pesticides, and outdoor air pollution1" can all be sources of indoor air pollutants. There are also biological sources, such as mold, pet dander, bacteria, viruses, pollen, and particles from dust mites and roaches3. As you see, many of the products that we choose to purchase and bring into our homes,  everyday activities, such as cooking with gas and burning wood, and even biological sources have the potential to contribute to indoor air pollution. 

IAQ & Health
Now, we are going to dive into the most important part of this article, how poor IAQ can affect your health. I'm going to breakdown health effects into 2 different categories. First, are the acute or immediate health effects. Symptoms may include, but are not limited to headaches, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, confusion, eye irritation, and respiratory irritation4,5. According to the EPA, "immediate effects are short-term and treatable" and "treatment is simply eliminating the person's exposure to the source of the pollution(4)''. Well, that's a relief that these things are easily treatable, but more on that in a bit. Let's move on to the second category of health effects.

The second category of health effects are chronic or long term effects. These effects may show up years after exposure    or after multiple exposures to pollutants4.These effects include heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease4,5. These diseases are very costly and often fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists these diseases as the top 3 leading causes of death in the United States6. The picture has become alarmingly clear that IAQ is quite important, and we need to take steps to ensure that it is of the highest quality.

 

                            Illustration compliments of Vignette Co.

                           Illustration compliments of Vignette Co.

Lets revisit the acute health effects. These health effects are easily treatable by eliminating exposure to the source. That seems easy enough. We can step outside and breathe in some fresh air and be good to go, but that is just a short term fix. When we go back inside we are exposed to it again and those acute health effects are likely to return. Also, remember that long term repeated exposure may lead to very serious health effects. We need a long term solution to eliminating the sources of the pollutants, and it starts with knowledge. With the knowledge that building materials and furnishings are a major contributor to indoor air pollution, you should look for the following when searching for healthy product alternatives:

Non-toxic finishes, low-emitting materials, low/no volatile organic compounds (VOC), no added urea formaldehyde (NAUF), and certain certifications such as GREENGUARD, Floor Score, CRI Green Label Plus, Green Wise, and SCS Indoor Advantage.

This list is not comprehensive and is just a means to get you started on your own. If you need more direction in your quest for healthy building materials that positively affect IAQ, 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.

As you see, with the amount of time that we spend indoors, IAQ is of extreme importance to our well being. There are certain steps that we can take to make positive changes in our indoor environments. These changes not only benefit us and those that we share our spaces with, but also benefit the environment. Go start your research and make some changes to your indoor spaces to promote a healthier environment. And, for the love of nature, go spend a little more time outside, so we can lower that 90% statistic. Feel free to check out my sources for additional information. I've only scratched the surface here. Join me next time as we explore Volatile Organic Compounds, what they are, why the government regulates them, and if they are created equal.


Sources