Feature Article

VOCs: Why They’re Still Here and What You Can Do About It

“Sick building syndrome” was one of the first problems the green building community tried to solve. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not done yet.

October 4, 2016

Photo: NY Photographic. License: CC BY 3.0.
Chalk one up for Team Green. Zero-VOC paints and low-emitting commercial carpets and workstations are now mainstream. We won!

Try telling that to the proud owners of green buildings that turn out to have indoor air quality (IAQ) problems.

After the post-construction flush-out, VOC levels sometimes “start to skyrocket,” according to Ryan Dick, founder and COO of Global Innovations Green Algorithms (GIGA). The firm’s cloud-based RESET program tracks real-time concentrations of VOCs, particulates, and carbon dioxide in buildings around the world. The results aren’t always pretty.

“Building tightness works to the disservice of air quality,” Dick told BuildingGreen. “Sealing is good thing, but it allows VOCs to accumulate and not dissipate. Even low-emitting materials will accumulate over time.” He continued, “The HVAC system often can’t keep up. Day after day, VOCs will accrue as materials continue to offgas. It may never be at a healthy limit.”

But wait. Is what GIGA considers a “healthy limit” for total VOCs even based on science?

Toxicologists, independent labs, industrial hygienists, engineers, certifiers, and other experts on IAQ still have bitter arguments about which VOC metrics matter, which testing protocols work, and which labels actually mean something.

At the same time, in the midst of ever-building demand for greater transparency about all the compounds that go into a building product, exposure to VOCs has become almost an afterthought. Many people assume, incorrectly, that this problem has already been solved.

What’s a building professional to do? In this special issue, we look at these frequently asked questions:

In the process, we are probably going to take you out of your comfort zone. But we hope by the end you’ll have a much clearer idea of how to prioritize your material selections and design choices to optimize IAQ.

Take a deep breath. Let’s get started.