Hold the VOCs, Please

  By Mary Swanson, Green Seal's Vice President of Certification MaryEditors' Note: This is the first in a series about how we look at chemicals and chemical products. Like people, chemicals have character traits, including whether they are calm and easy going or volatile. Volatile people are more likely to fly off the handle; volatile chemicals are more likely to fly off into the air. We tend to like volatile chemicals in products because they do their job then leave quickly. Like helping dissolve and carry the pigment and film-forming part of paint, until it’s smoothly on the wall. Then we want the paint to dry. Likewise with nail polish. Or with glass cleaner -- after the window is clean, the stuff you sprayed on the window and wiped around then needs to depart quickly so the glass dries dirt- and streak-free. Do you think about where it goes as it seemingly disappears? Environmental scientists love to turn long words and phrases into acronyms. One way we label volatile chemicals is by the term VOC (pronounced vee oh see). It makes more sense to define the letters in reverse, so: C is for compound (a chemical made up of more than one element, for instance carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. etc) O is for organic (organic means the elements include the type of carbon that makes up living things -- not that it was grown without pesticides ) V is for volatile (it likes to fly) (it tends to fly off into the air) So why worry about VOCs? What does a chemical’s volatility mean for us and for the environment? A chemical that tends to fly off into the air can travel around more, react with other chemicals in the air, and be there for us to inhale… According to the EPA, most people spend up to 90% of their time indoors. Yikes. One way we combat this tendency during the long winters in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, is by putting snow tires on our bicycles – seriously! VOCs contribute to indoor air pollution, which can affect human health: things like nose and lung irritation, rashes, headaches, nausea, and asthma. Outdoors, VOCs can react with sunlight and atmospheric constituents to form ground-level ozone and photochemical smog. (Ozone? --we like stratospheric ozone, it keeps us from getting really sunburned. Ground-level ozone, not so much…) California Air Resources Board (CARB) tightly regulates VOC content in consumer products. Other states have adopted these same limits to reduce ozone levels. Limits on the content of VOCs are essential for minimizing the potential environmental and health effects of cleaning products and ozone pollution on workers, children, and otherwise vulnerable or sensitive populations. Green Seal’s standards are adopting the allowable VOC limits set by the CARB, with an exception for product categories where previous editions of our standards already set stricter limits. So instead of flying off the handle, step outside, relax, and take a few deep breaths. And look for products with minimal or no VOCs, so we can all breathe easier.