Stop and Smell the VOCs

July 1, 2007
With a move toward emissions testing in addition to content guidelines, sustainable building programs are challenging manufacturers to design products that are better for the environment.

An important development in green building rating systems has occurred in the last year with little or no attention; the focus is shifting from strictly chemical content of building materials toward chemical emissions. The merit of controlling the VOC content, or grams/liter, is valuable in terms of protecting the natural environment when that product is ultimately disposed, but content can not serve as a measure to predict the offgassing that a product will give when applied or installed. Defining sustainability has proven to be a moving target, which makes it critical that existing programs continue to improve and revise upon their guidelines and rating systems.

Two key programs have made minor changes yielding significant results in the world of low-emitting materials. The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) program has moved beyond the debated issue of VOC content as a predictor of VOC emissions by specifying low-emitting materials and identifying strategies, such as third-party certification. Only one year ago, CHPS released the latest version of its criteria guideline, which set the bar for all materials being used in K-12 schools to meet the requirements of the State of California Department of Health Services (DHS) Standard Practice (also referred to as CA Section 01350).

Similarly, the newest LEED® rating system, LEED for Schools, addresses the concern of materials in a much different way than LEED rating systems did in the past. The first change is that it now allows the user to select from six different options to achieve a maximum of four credits when specifying low-emitting materials. Options include Adhesives & Sealants, Paints & Coatings, Flooring Systems, Composite Wood & Agrifiber Products, Furniture & Furnishings and Ceiling & Wall Systems. While the USGBC does not certify the "greenness" of materials, it does encourage the use of low-VOC products. And for the first time, the intent of using low-emitting materials is being held to a standard that actually ensures the building product will not significantly offgas VOCs.

The criteria for qualified low-emitting building products and materials is shown through third-party certification such as GREENGUARD Children & Schools or others as identified in the rating system to meet the VOC emissions of the State of California DHS Standard Practice. This practice identifies more than 60 chemicals of concern that must be assessed and analyzed through product emission testing in environmental chambers for a period of either seven or 14 days. Where rating systems once relied upon the South Coast Air Quality Management for VOC content from adhesives or Green Seal GS-11 for paints, we are now seeing a transgression to a standard of truly assessing the VOC emissions from products in realistic settings. 

With the new move toward emissions testing, in addition to content guidelines, sustainable building programs, such as LEED, CHPS and Green Guide for Health Care (GGHC) are challenging manufacturers to design products that are better for the environment, both outdoor and indoor. This is a significant development as groups continue to push sustainability standards to new heights.

It is not to say that the value of VOC content requirements are not protective of health and the environment, but the strengthened focus and heightened awareness to VOC emissions from building products has become much more sophisticated in the past few years. Science will always challenge the creation of safer and healthier building products, and green building programs will continue to focus on cutting-edge technologies to drive market transformation and to create healthy and sustainable environments.

Ben Taube serves as the public affairs manager for the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI). With an educational background in environmental management and policy, Taube is responsible for planning, coordinating, and communicating GEI's activities, capabilities, goals and priorities to a variety of audiences.

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