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What’s the fuss with the VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds)?

The last few years there is a continuous discussion in the marketplace and environmental communities about the usage of the VOC’s with an ever growing number of manufacturers claiming their products as low VOC, zero-VOC, low odor etc. and EPA and many state air quality boards regulate their use and limits. So what’s the fuss with the VOC’s?

Organic chemical compounds are everywhere in both indoor and outdoor environments because they have become essential ingredients in many products and materials. Outdoors, VOCs are volatized or released into the air mostly during manufacture or use of everyday products and materials, while indoors VOCs are mostly released into the air from the use of products and materials containing VOCs. VOCs are of concern as both indoor air pollutants and as outdoor air pollutants. However, the emphasis of that concern outdoors is different from indoors. The main concern indoors is the potential for VOCs to adversely impact the health of people that are exposed. While VOCs can also be a health concern outdoors, EPA regulates VOCs outdoors mainly because of their ability to create photochemical smog under certain conditions. Although the same term “VOC” is used for both indoor and outdoor air quality, the term is defined differently to reflect its predominant concern in each context. This has created a misunderstanding in the marketplace and in the environmental community. In addition, the measured quantity and composition of VOCs in the air can vary significantly depending on the measurement methods used, which has generated additional confusion.*

EPA formerly defined the regulated organic compounds in outdoor air as “Reactive Organic Gases“ (ROG). This terminology clarified its meaning as being limited to reactive chemicals. However, EPA later changed that terminology to “VOC”. Unfortunately, the use of the term “VOC” rather than ROG has created a misunderstanding when applied to indoor air quality. Many individuals and organizations, including manufacturers of building materials and products, and third party certification organizations have come to think of VOCs as “only those regulated by EPA for outdoor air”, and apply the same definition for indoor air purposes. To the extent that some exempted compounds impact the health of exposed individuals indoors, the definition of VOCs regulated for outdoor air has the potential to create serious misconceptions for indoor air quality; therefore, such VOCs should not be excluded from consideration for indoor air. For example, methylene chloride (paint stripper) is exempted compounds for outdoor regulation, but it could pose serious health risks to exposed individuals if present indoors.*

In conclusion, It is important for consumers to understand that information on labels or other product literature with broad claims about environmental impact using terms such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” may or may not include some of the VOCs emitted from the product, and therefore may not otherwise consider their adverse health effects.

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* EPA Volatile Organic Compounds Technical Overview

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