green construction VOC sustainable

Green Construction: What You Should Know About VOCs in your Home Improvement Project


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ve probably heard something about  the dangers of VOCs.  Since the word is out that they can be quite harmful an array of Low and No VOC products have come on the market so as you go through day to day life, it’s now reasonably easy to maintain low concentrations of chemicals in your indoor environment by steering clear of harsh cleaning materials and not sniffing glue.  But the moment you start a home improvement project the odds of encountering a product or material that contains them goes WAY up unless you are explicitly planning to avoid them.  Here’s what moss recommends you consider to keep your construction project as healthy as possible.

Big offenders in the building construction department are:

  • Floor:  Carpets, carpet related adhesives and vinyl flooring are all potential big offenders for off-gassing.
  • Walls: Paints and paint solvents (especially oil based products) are also traditionally VOC laden.
  • Furniture: Both upholstery fabrics AND the composite wood product structures underneath them can ben sources of VOC emissions.
  • Built-Ins: Again, composite wood products like particle board make up a big part of most new kitchen cabinets and other built in shelving units.  Make sure your choices here are VOC (specifically formaldehyde) free if you want to do any truly organic cooking in your new kitchen.

So … What are VOCs Anyway?

VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound.  Ok, “volatile” is not a friendly word but “organic” is usually a good thing.  And “compound” is harmless, right?  But Volatile Organic Compounds (or sometimes Volatile Organic Chemicals) refer to a group of gasses that are emitted by certain modern solid or liquid materials.  That keyword, “volatile” means they an react harmfully both with nitrogen oxide compounds in the air (creating smog) or with other organic compounds in your body causing ill health effects ranging from headaches to cancer.  You’ve probably heard of specific VOCs such as benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene.  Yeah, those are all bad.

VOCs are often released by “off-gassing” from recently manufactured materials and, yes, they are at least partly responsible for that famous “new car smell” although just because you CAN’T smell anything doesn’t mean that there are no nasty chemicals.  And they’re not only  to be found in a new car.  The EPA lists them as present in some types of the following: paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; dry-cleaned clothing.

VOCs in your home

We’ve been aware that these chemicals are bad news for a while.  And they have been found in concentrations “2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside.”  That’s because once they are released by their originating material, they tend to just hang around in the air for a while, especially if its not circulating.  The National Resource Defense Council warns:

 “Immediately after the application of a high-VOC-emitting product, indoor levels can be more than 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels.”

How Long do they Linger?

Ian Cull, self-described “Indoor Air Nerd” and Chicago-based Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) consultant, discusses those lingering effects in a blog post “How long does it take for VOCs to dissipate?”   Its hard to predict exactly how long VOCs will linger in your house after you (mistakenly) bring them in.  He cites a finding in the Indoor Air Journal which suggests that VOC levels can return to “normal” over a 2-3 month period but warns that “it can take much longer” in homes with little air circulation.

VOCs are bad.  Avoid them.

The worst case scenario with VOCs is that you live in such a high concentration that you or your loved ones start to experience Sick Building Syndrome which the national health service describes as symptoms including headaches, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath and so much more which is linked to spending time in a modern building without operable windows.

But the good news is that you can side step this problem by paying attention during a green building project.  Don’t introduce VOCs into your indoor environment in the first place.  So READ THE LABLES to find products with Low or No VOC ratings.   Look for Greenguard or Greenguard Gold certification or vet potential products through sustainable product guides like the one produced by Underwriters Laboratories here.

The bottom line … keep VOCs out of your house during new construction projects.  What are your thoughts on the matter?  Tell us in the comments below!