Here are some of the most common certifications for VOC levels and what they mean for the chemically sensitive:
Green Label Plus
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 upper limit levels to be too high for people with chemical sensitivities and most carpets can meet this level now.
Here is my list of carpets that can do better than this.
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 and GreenGuard Gold
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 or “background rate” is about 1/10th of that.
So is GreenGuard legit? Well for some products GreenGuard Gold levels can be useful. Especially if you look through the individual levels of VOCs and their limit. If you are looking at something like laminate or engineered flooring or cabinets and they meet Gold levels, that is a great indicator for formaldehyde.
The formaldehyde levels allowed are GreenGuard 0.05 ppm (parts per million) and GreenGuard Gold allows 0.0073 ppm formaldehyde. This level of formaldehyde in GreenGuard Gold certification is extremely low, inconsequential really. Here is a table with reference levels of formaldehyde.
GreenGuard levels claim to keep overall 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 health compromised.
Another tricky aspect of Grenguard is that 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 – the problem is once they have this certification they often don’t disclose the exact levels. Many products like quartz countertops which claimed 0-VOC before (and are probably very close to zero), now have GreenGuard Gold and therefore they no longer say their exact levels.
Although this is the best certification right now, it’s made things a little more difficult for sensitive folks. We need to advocate for companies to release the results of the testing and not hide behind certifications.
Note: GreenGuard measures the emissions and not the content in the material so these numbers cannot be converted to g/l.
Floorscore – Floor Score levels of VOC is 0.5mg/m3 (500 μg/m3), this same level as GreenGuard.
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)
CARB II formaldehyde levels are as follows:
Products measured include those containing hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard (like furniture and cabinets)- these are pressed wood products sold for indoors, it does not include exterior sheathing products like exterior plywood and OSB.
CARB II Formaldehyde Limits are:
Hardwood Plywood – 0.05 ppm (parts per million)
Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF) 0.11 ppm
Thin MDF 0.13 ppm
Particleboard 0.09 ppm
My post on pressed wood goes more into levels of formaldehyde and has a table that provides reference levels.
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. Though I have to say, I don’t find basic polyurethanes to offgas very much or for very long. Most people are Ok with a camping mat, mattress or couch after some offgassing.
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.
I actually prefer polyurethane over natural latex which I explain in my posts on beds.
This also certifies that they are made without PBDE flame retardants (though they should go further to eliminate all toxic flame retardants, which I discuss here).
They say they 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).
GOTS Certified Organic is a great certification to identify fabrics that are not only organic but safe from chemical processing. Whenever possible I go for GOTS certified products. This certification was definitely a step in the right direction.
GOTS certified mean: (quoted from their website):
A textile product carrying the GOTS label grade ‘organic’ must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers whereas a product with the label grade ‘made with organic’ must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibers.
At all processing stages, organic fiber products must be separated from conventional fiber products and must be clearly identified.
All chemical inputs (e.g. dyes, auxiliaries, and process chemicals) must be evaluated and meet basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability.
Ban on toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, functional nano particles, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their enzymes.
The use of synthetic sizing agents is restricted; knitting and weaving oils must not contain heavy metals.
Bleaches must be based on oxygen (no chlorine bleaching).
Azo dyes that release carcinogenic amine compounds are prohibited.
Discharge printing methods using aromatic solvents and plastisol printing methods using phthalates and PVC are prohibited.
Restrictions for accessories (e.g. no PVC, nickel or chrome permitted, all polyester must be post-consumer recycled from 2014 onwards).
Packaging material must not contain PVC. From 1 January 2014 onwards, any paper or cardboard used in packaging material, hang tags, swing tags etc. must be post-consumer recycled or certified in accordance with FSC or PEFC
GOLS certification means a product must contain more than 95% certified organic raw natural latex.
The GOLS standard features permissible limits for harmful substances, emission test requirements and polymer and filler percentages.
It prohibits polyurethane foam and some flame retardants, colorants and allergenic dyes. It requires low emission of VOCs including formaldehyde.
I’m not a big fan of natural latex in general, which I explain in this post.
What Should the Chemically Sensitive Look For?
I like to see products close to 0-VOC for most applications – there are exceptions because there are exempt VOCs (though not that many), and some VOCs flash off so fast that we don’t need to worry about them.
No Flame Retardants
I would like to see a ban on toxic flame retardants – I discuss flame retardants and which products you still find them in in this post. Flame retardants are not classified under VOCs.
No Toxic Metals
I would like to see toxic metals declared and reduced to the most minimal level (that is inevitable in natural products and minerals). Many products are actually moving towards toxic metals used as “safer” flame retardants, which is a problem.
Regulations on chemicals that are not VOCs
Phthalates should be avoided. Most biocides should be avoided.
Products I Recommend
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.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
For individual help on choosing the best products and materials for you and your home, you can schedule a consultation with me here.
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