by Eleanor Hoyt
Healthy buildings support happy people. As sustainable building practices advance, consideration for how a building can affect human health continues to grow. An essential piece of a healthy building is the quality of its indoor air. In fact, studies have shown that poor air quality not only affects health but can also influence productivity and cognitive function.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a common air pollutant sourced from a variety of building products that have the potential to cause both short-term and long-term adverse health effects. Understanding VOC emissions and how to control them can lead to a healthier environment for occupants.
Getting to the source
In older buildings, infiltration is a significant contributor to indoor air movement, often unintentionally supplementing designed ventilation rates, and playing a role in flushing VOCs from indoor spaces. But as new building envelopes get tighter in a push toward energy conservation, VOCs and other airborne contaminants tend to persist. While increasing ventilation rates is an effective solution to reduce the presence of airborne VOCs, it can also be costly.
A cheaper and easier solution is to tackle VOCs at the source
Many common building materials contribute to VOC concentrations in the air, including carpets, paints, wall panels, adhesives, and furniture. Choosing products that have been tested for VOC emissions is a simple way to improve indoor air quality. In 2004, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released “California Specification 01350,” outlining a standard testing method to evaluate VOC emissions from indoor air sources.
Finding the right products
While the CDPH 01350 standard is not a law, it has become a widely accepted guide from which many material certification systems develop their criteria. Utilizing low-VOC emissions materials can help keep harmful concentrations in the air to a minimum and help keep building occupants healthy.
Many certification programs exist, but the following systems use part or all of the CDPH 01350 standard to certify building products with low VOC emissions:
- LEED Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Credits.
- WELL Building Standard.
- The Living Building Challenge.
- Business and Institutional Furniture Sustainability Standard (BIFMA).
- Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) Green Label Plus (GLP).
- Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) Indoor Advantage Gold.
- Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) Floorscore.
- GREENGUARD Children & Schools.
VOC emissions testing is a developing area within the world of indoor air quality, and there is still no fool-proof way to ensure harmful VOC concentrations are kept out of buildings. A few things to keep in mind:
- Not all VOCs are equal. There are many different types of VOCs, and only some of them are tested for in current analytical methods. Similarly, some VOC emissions certification programs base their criteria on the estimated concentration of total volatile organic compounds (TVOC). But while some VOCs are hazardous, others are harmless. As such, the TVOC value says little about potential health effects.
- Typical scenarios might not be the best fit. Predicted indoor VOC concentrations are modeled using prescribed scenarios for an office or classroom environment, but the parameters used for these scenarios might not match the conditions of a specific building. A modeled concentration from the lab can be inaccurate due to actual variations in ventilation rates and the amount of a material present in a room.
- Improved indoor air starts early. Controlling the source of VOCs in indoor spaces by managing building materials is a cost-effective solution to maintain healthy indoor air quality. Evaluating materials early in the design process and tailoring concentration models to specific indoor conditions can have a significant impact on the health of our indoor environment.
Eleanor Hoyt is a sustainability analyst at Linnean Solutions.