Volatile Organic Compounds VOCs

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are an entire class of carbon-based chemicals that give off vapors at normal room temperatures. Thousands of products emit VOCs, including paints and lacquers, paint strippers, ad-hesives and sealants, carpets and carpet backing, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment (copiers and printers,) graphics and craft materials, and permanent markers.

When I was growing up, our family got a new car every three to five years. It was a real treat to sit in the new car and inhale new-car smell, an odor that disappeared after a few months. Of course, as kids we didn't realize that we were breathing several toxic chemicals, including toluene, a suspected carcinogen! For years I found auto-supply stores selling spray cans of new-car smell! VOCs are now regulated by air-quality management districts because they contribute to ground-level ozone.

Nowadays with so many people having environmental allergies, it just makes good sense to reduce the level ofVOCs in buildings to which people are exposed, particularly in five major categories:

• Paints and coatings.

• Adhesives and sealants.

• Composite wood and agrifiber products.

• Furniture and furnishings.

Paints and coatings in green buildings must meet VOC limits established in the Green Seal GS-11 standard, while clear wood finishes, floor coatings and similar substances have their own special standards. Many VOC concentrations are regulated by local air pollution control agencies, since they eventually escape a building through the ventilation system and become an ingredient in ground-level ozone.

High-VOC levels are often found in general construction adhesives (think of anything that comes in a tube), flooring and fire-stopping adhesives, caulking, duct sealants and plumbing adhesives. There are also aerosol adhesives, carpet pad adhesives and ceramic tile adhesives with high-VOC levels.

Carpets and carpet cushions are also sources for VOCs in buildings. In green buildings they must be certified under the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Plus and Green Label programs.

Composite wood and agrifiber products in green buildings must be free of any added urea-formaldehyde resins. This category includes parti-cleboard, medium-density fiberboard, plywood, wheatboard, strawboard and door cores.

Furniture and furnishings are also sources of VOCs. Try to buy a piece of furniture that doesn't have pressed wood fibers soaked with smelly urea-formaldehyde, and you'll understand. Now think about all the people in offices subject to the off-gassing of formaldehyde from new furniture!

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