Product manufacturers have worked hard to reduce the level of volatile organic compounds in sealants, adhesives, and coatings, but it always pays to read a product’s label and ensure that it meets the strictest low-VOC standard.

Adhesive and coating manufacturers have put great effort into reducing the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their products, and they’ve done so in the absence of regulations at the federal level, and in all but 15 states. While there are no signs of that significantly changing in the near future, a de facto national VOC standard is nevertheless emerging.

That standard is being created by a range of private programs, the requirements of which most big manufacturers now meet. While each of these programs has its own unique focus, most reference the VOC limits enforced by the state of California, either the California Department of Public Health’s 01350 environmental standard for building materials, or the stricter limits set by the Los Angeles area’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD).

Three examples: The Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus program, which covers carpet and adhesives, is based squarely on 01350. "We are ANSI certified and follow 01350 to the letter,” says Jeff Carrier, director of regulatory systems for the institute. UL Environment’s GREENGUARD gold standard is also based on 01350 but goes further, by monitoring a range of chemicals that the California program doesn’t. And the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program requires adhesives, sealants, and clear finishes to comply with SCAQMD limits.

This isn’t just a U.S. trend. Canada’s regulatory agency, Environment Canada, is in the process of writing VOC regulations based largely on the California rules.

All this effort has made low-VOC synonymous in many people’s minds with low toxicity. That’s generally true, but overall VOC numbers may not tell the whole story. When serving chemically sensitive and “green” buyers, it helps to understand a bit more about a product’s formulation.

Low-VOC products are healthier, but not all VOCs have the same effect on health. An example is the glycol solvents used in some paints and adhesives. Ethylene glycol—the main ingredient in antifreeze—is listed by the EPA and the state of California as toxic. The amounts used in paints and adhesives are small but can still bother some people, whether the homeowner or the worker. As a result, some manufacturers have switched to propylene glycol, which is used in foods, medicines, and cosmetics.

“The type of VOC is more important than the amount,” according to the environmental director at a paint manufacturer. “Say you have one paint with 100 grams of VOC per liter of paint, and another with 50 gm/l. If the 50 gm/l paint is made with ethylene and the 100 gm/l with propylene, then the 100 gm/l product will be less toxic.”

There are also hidden VOCs. For instance, ammonia and acetone are used in some products but need not be included in the VOC calculations. That’s because VOC regulations are less about improving indoor air quality than they are about reducing outdoor air pollution. Regulations target VOCs that react with combustion byproducts in the atmosphere to form smog; ammonia and acetone aren’t among those.

People who are concerned about indoor air quality and worker health should consult the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). One recommendation would be to choose products without acetone, ammonia, or crystalline silica (a known carcinogen). Some fungicides and biocides can also cause problems.

In some cases, what’s in the paint may be less important than what the buyer thinks is in it. “Sometimes it’s pure perception,” says Rick Morgan, a managing partner with Minneapolis-based law firm Bowman and Brooke, who defends manufacturers against toxicity claims. “People move into a building, they get an illness that isn’t related to the building, then they blame it on the building.” One solution is to ask buyers about odor sensitivity and direct them to a low-odor product if necessary.

After the work is done—whether it's an interior paint job or a glue-down carpet—an additional way to clear the air is with a bake out. Dr. Robert Emery, vice president for safety, health, environment, and risk management at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, recommends doing it after adding any VOC-emitting product, whether it’s paint, carpet, or new furniture, to a home or building. He says that the university has had great success using this approach.

"After the work is done, we elevate temperatures in the room to 85 degrees or so for 24 to 48 hours." The heat accelerates evaporation, driving the volatile compounds out of the material so they can be removed by the building's air handling system.

The bottom line is that the emerging VOC standards are a great asset, but they don’t relieve the contractor of all responsibility. The regulations and program requirements mentioned above are complex, but paying attention to a few key details and clearing the air after the job is done will satisfy the rules and make for healthier workers and happier customers.

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