Volatile Organic Compounds

Ok, let me just start off by saying: “I’m pissed.” There I’ve said it.  Now let me explain why.

For the past two years Mary and I, together with various other contributors, have been writing these newsletters and blogs as a way to inform our readers about what's going on in the green building industry.  We've tried to make them informative, humorous, and entertaining.  We try to stay away from being preachy.  Well, folks, not this time.

I’m climbing up on my soap box and I’m yelling at the world.  What, you may be asking, is bringing this man to such a state of despair?  Just hang with me, folks, and I will explain.

The first reason I'm upset:   A few weeks ago, we attended an organized tour of homes, an annual event.  This year, there were 75 houses scattered throughout the Central Texas area.  It was a very nice representation from custom homes to production-built homes.  Some were very nice.  However, as we entered a couple of the houses, we were overwhelmed by the off-gassing odor from paint, carpet, varnishes, adhesives, who knows what.  Mary and I both got headaches, and we scrambled out of there as quickly as could.  Whew.  Gack.  Our reaction was likely caused by the volatile organic compounds (VOC’s)  in the paint, the glues, the building materials, the plastics, even the furniture used in the home.  You know what I'm talking about -- you've probably had that reaction yourself.

So what are VOC’s?

Here is the definition from the Environmental Protection Agency:

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

The EPA web site goes on to say this about the health effects of VOC's:

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness."

Ok, fine, but did you know the current VOC regulations weren't intended to address indoor air quality or human health concerns?  They were intended to curb the creation of ground-level ozone that results when VOCs emitted into the atmosphere react with heat and sunlight outdoors. However, studies have shown that the levels of several VOC's average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors.  Gack, indeed.

Here's the second reason I’m upset:   As I write this, I am dealing with a younger brother, mid-50’s, who is dying from a brain tumor.  Frank has worked all of his life in an area of southern Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as "Cancer Alley."  (Look it up.)  He started out as a deck hand cleaning out barges filled with toxic who-knows-what. Over the years, he advanced to become a master river boat pilot pushing some of the same barges past many of the petro-chemical plants in the area.  I can't help but believe his cancer is the result, at least in part, of the toxic environment where he works, plays, and lives -- a place he loves.

So here's my point.  Since we know better, why are there homes still being built today using materials that are toxic?  Have we totally lost the concern for better indoor air quality just so we can have the biggest house for the cheapest square-foot price?  Do we not have any concern for our children and where they spend most of their time?  Do we really think we don’t have a choice?

The answer to that last question is NO.  We do have a choice.

The best way to combat this problem is to be informed. Don't buy toxic products.  There are alternatives.  Ask questions.  Demand to know the materials, paints, glues, etc. used in your home.  Be informed.  Don’t settle for anything less.  Once builders realize that consumers refuse to buy a house that will make them sick, they will quit building them that way.

At Solluna Builders, we do everything we can to ensure the homes we build provide a safe, healthy environment for the families who live in them.  We consider every aspect -- the design, the ventilation, the materials we use.  And it's humbling, because there's something new to learn every day.

Some people think this isn't any big deal.  Some people think that if you can’t smell it, it must be ok.  Yeah, well, for years the tobacco industry told us smoking cigarettes was good for us.  Do we really want to wait that long?

Thank you for listening to my personal rant.  I will now step down from my soap box and return you to your regularly scheduled program.

-- Wayne

Read more about it:

See the EPA's Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)  and see its guide, Care for Your Air: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.

Read some worthwhile articles on the EcoHome Magazine web site:

Redefining 'Green' Paint (go to page 35)

Selecting Interior Finishes

The Future of Indoor Air

See the Austin Energy Green Building Program's Single Family Guidebook for its guidelines concerning health and safety.