Here are some of the most common certifications for VOC levels and what they mean for the chemically sensitive.
Green Label Plus - Certifies "very low" emissions on carpets. They test for 35 compounds listed under California Department of Public Health’s Section 1350. Each product category also includes additional compounds for certification, six for carpet, two for carpet pad, and seven for adhesive. They meet or exceed California’s indoor quality standards for low-emitting products used in commercial settings such as schools and office buildings. Here is the list of their levels of VOCs. I would find these levels to be too high for people with chemical sensitivities.
Green Seal - Follows CARB levels of VOCs (more on CARB below). For example, on paint, this is between 100-300 g/l depending on the type of paint. This is not a low enough level for people with chemical sensitivities.
GreenGuard - GreenGuard has two levels of certification, GreenGuard - 500 μg/m3 total VOCs, and GreenGuard Gold - total VOCs 220 μg/m3. (GreenGuard Children and Schools which also measured for phthalates no longer exists). For reference, the average house has a total VOC level of about 200 μg/m3 and the outdoor rate is about 1/10th of that. GreenGuard levels claim to keep VOCs below limits that would adversely affect health. However for extremely sensitive people the level in an average house is unacceptable, so GreenGuard Gold level may not be tolerable. I recommend GreenGuard Gold for people who are healthy but I would always aim for outdoor levels of VOCs for those who are ill. Because it states that the levels are below the given threshold, you don’t know if the product is 220 or 0 μg/m3. You still have to contact the companies to find out what the VOC level is. Note: GreenGuard measures the emissions and not the content in the material so these numbers cannot be converted to g/l.
OSHA Guidelines - CA OSHA has the strictest government guidelines for VOCs in buildings. Here are their limits on VOCs. While CARB and OSHA are definitely steps in the right direction, they promote levels of VOCs that will not cause adverse effects in healthy people. These levels will not be acceptable for the extremely sensitive.
CARB - Establishes a maximum VOC-content for consumer products sold in California. These are not necessarily low VOC. For example, low-VOC paint means less than 50g/l, while CARB levels for paint are 100-300 g/l. (Note: zero-VOC means less than 5g/l)
Certi-Pur - Certifies polyurethane foam. All polyurethane foam can basically meet this level of 0.5 ppm (or 500 μg/m3 total VOCs). A level that is too high for most sensitive people. They would not give out info on how long it takes to completely offgas. While this certification provides a maximum level of VOCs, some polyurethanes can be as low as 72 μg/m3 which would be an acceptable level for many people. It also certifies that they are made without PBDE flame retardants (although they almost always do contain other flame retardants). They say the are made without formaldehyde but the limit for formaldehyde in the foam is actually 100 μg/m3 (compared to the GreenGaurd Gold limit of 9 μg/m3). They say made without prohibited phthalates (not free of all phthalates).
What Should the Chemically Sensitive Look For
I always choose zero-VOC materials when available. You can find zero-VOC options for wallboards, insulation, siding, sheathing, flooring, paints, sealers, caulking, grout, thin set, tiles, beds, furniture, flashing, windows, roofing, and underlayments.
Also, look for products without flame retardants, biocides, phthalates, and lead. (These are not listed as VOCs).
There are very few areas in which we have to use VOCs such as pipes, some glues, wiring, and appliances. Flame retardants cannot be avoided in appliances and electronics.
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