Here are the most common certifications for VOC levels and what they really tell us about the offgassing and toxicity of the products.
GreenGuard and GreenGuard Gold Certifications
GreenGuard allows – 500 μg/m3 total VOCs.
GreenGuard Gold allows – 220 μg/m3 total VOCs.
(GreenGuard Children and Schools which also measured for phthalates as well as VOCs, 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 (20 μg/m3).
GreenGuard Gold certification is the most useful of all the healthy product certifications out there.
What Does GreenGuard Gold Certified Indicate for Formaldehyde Levels?
If you look through the individual levels of VOCs and their limits you can dig in even deeper.
The formaldehyde level allowed in GreenGuard Gold certified products is minuscule, just 9 μg/m3 or 7.3 ppb (parts per billion).
I have a post that contains a reference level table for formaldehyde. Outdoor urban air contains 1.5- 47 ppb. GreenGuard Gold formaldehyde levels are lower than the outdoor air in many places.
If you are looking at something like laminate or engineered flooring or cabinets and they meet Gold levels, that is a great indicator for extremely low formaldehyde. This does almost always indicate that a replacement glue that offgasses a different VOC was used.
Formaldehyde levels allowed with standard GreenGuard are significantly higher at 50 ppb (parts per billion) or 61.3 μg/m3 (Compared to GreenGuard Gold 0.0073 ppm).
What Does GreenGuard Mean for Assessing Safety?
GreenGuard levels keep overall VOCs below limits that would adversely affect health based on the current state of knowledge.
However, for extremely sensitive people who are already compromised by toxin exposure, the level of VOCs in an average house is unacceptable, so even GreenGuard Gold levels may not be tolerable.
Products, of course, are cumulative in a space. So it is important, especially when building new, to keep each material as low in offgassing as possible.
The GreenGuard tests attempt to show “real life” levels of VOCs, that might be expected in a regular-sized room after 7 days. (Source)
I recommend GreenGuard Gold as the best certification for people who are healthy, but I would always aim for outdoor levels of VOCs for those who are health compromised.
Downsides of GreenGuard Certification for Products
One tricky aspect of GreenGuard 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 don’t disclose the exact levels.
Many products like quartz countertops which claimed 0 VOC before they were certified (and are probably very close to zero), now have GreenGuard Gold certification, and therefore we can’t know their exact levels.
Although this is the best certification right now, it’s made things a little more difficult for very sensitive folks. We need to advocate for companies to release the actual results of the testing and not hide behind certifications.
The certification does not limit semi VOCs, like phthalates, biocides and flame retardants. Nor heavy metals.
Note: GreenGuard measures the emissions and not the content in the material so these numbers cannot be converted to g/l (grams per liter).
For help making sense of the greenwashing and choosing the best products for your home, you can contact me here to book a one-on-one consult.
Floorscore – Floorscore has two tiers that you will see on the certificates: ≤0.5 mg/m3 (500 μg/m3), or 0.5 – 5 mg/m3 Total VOCs.
Floorscore certificates will indicate which range the product falls under.
There is no upper limit for total VOCs, they go by upper limits on each of the 35 Volatile Organic Compounds specified by the California Standard Method for VOC Emissions Testing and Evaluation (Standard Method V1.2), otherwise known as CA Section 01350.
The allowable limits of each VOC can be seen in the table on page 37 here.
What Floorscore Doesn’t Include
Chemical substances (on the CREL or other lists) that are not VOCs (e.g., metals, acids, semi-VOC plasticizers (eg phthalates), semi-VOC pesticides/biocides) are not required to be analyzed under this Standard Method.
Only 35 VOCs are tested for.
In other words, Floorscore only complies with the legal allowable VOC limits in California.
How Does Floorscore Compare to GreenGuard
When a Floorscore certificate indicates total VOC (TVOC) of 0.5 mg/m3, this is the same level as standard GreenGuard (not Gold).
Therefore, if a product has GreenGuard Gold instead of Floorscore 0.5 mg/m3, the certification could indicate it offgasses a significantly lower level of VOCs.
If a company uses Floorscore they will use this across the board. It doesn’t help to differentiate which products are lower in offgassing.
You can see this dilemma in action when Mohawk bought Pergo floors and the laminates went from GreenGuard Gold to Floorscore certified (when I very much doubt the product itself changed).
Mohawk makes many other flooring lines that I doubt would meet GreenGuard Gold; I suspect that’s why they use Floorscore across the board.
All major flooring brands sold in the US and Canada likely meets the legal VOC limits in California and therefore meet Floorscore.
A flooring should certainly be able to achieve the lowest tier of less than 0.5 mg/m3, in my opinion. And most floors do.
Green Label Plus
Green Label Plus – Certifies “very low” emissions on carpets, according to what they think is very low.
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 adhesives.
They meet or exceed California’s indoor quality standards for low-emitting products used in commercial settings such as schools and office buildings.
Is Green Label Plus a Useful Certification?
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, you would be hardpressed to find a carpet in North America that can’t meet these limits.
This certification is made by the industry and is not helpful to me personally.
Here is my list of carpets that can do better than this.
Green Seal – Follows CARB (legal limits in California) levels of VOCs. More on CARB below.
For example, on paint, this is between 100-300 g/l (grams per liter) depending on the type of paint.
This is not a low enough level for people with chemical sensitivities.
OSHA is a Government Guideline – 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 may not be acceptable for the extremely sensitive.
CARB – The California Air Resource Board establishes legally allowable levels of VOCs for California (which usually get adopted in any nationally distributed product).
They establish 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 legal allowable 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 (MDF), 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.
When a product says they meet CARB II all they are saying is they are complying with the law in California.
CARB limits have been extremely useful in mostly eliminating the use of the more toxic urea-formaldehyde in household wood products. A major shift to phenol-formaldehyde which offgasses faster and at lower levels was a huge accomplishment.
CertiPUR – This certification was created by the polyurethane industry to certify polyurethane foam.
All polyurethane foam should be able meet this level of 0.5 ppm (or 500 μg/m3 total VOCs).
This level may be too high for most chemically sensitive people.
They would not give out info on how long polyurethane foam takes to completely offgas. Though I have to say, I don’t find basic polyurethanes to offgas very much, or for very long.
Memory foam is higher in VOCs than basic polyurethane foam. My post on Mattresses goes into more detail.
While this certification provides a maximum level of VOCs (500 μg/m3), some polyurethane foam products 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.
What Else is Regulated by CertiPUR?
This originally certified that foam is made without PBDE flame retardants (even when those were already banned).
Later they added that they are also made without TDCPP or TCEP (Tris) when those starting being removed from most foam.
They really should lead the way to eliminate all toxic flame retardants, which I discuss in my post on Flame Retardants).
They say they are “made without formaldehyde” but the allowable limit for formaldehyde in the final foam product is actually 100 μg/m3 (compared to the GreenGaurd Gold limit of 9 μg/m3).
Yet polyurethane is not made with formaldehyde. It’s possible they are allowing for formaldehyde donors, and that in some cases, such as when biocides are added, the final product could still contain formaldehyde up to 100 μg/m3!
Other VOCs that are measured in the testing (and therefore are likely to be in at least some foam used in mattresses and furniture) include benzene, toluene, styrene, and aromatic hydrocarbons.
They say made without prohibited phthalates (not free of all phthalates), and mercury, lead and heavy metals (metals were not a component in making foam).
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 means (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.
Why no Certification is Useful for Vinyl Flooring
Vinyl plank flooring offgases some aldehydes and a few other VOCs, all in very low amounts.
But the main concern in vinyl flooring is the plasticizers. None of the above certifications are measuring or limiting plasticizers by volume, by type/toxicity, or by how stable they are in their chemical bond in the material.
Recycled vinyl can also contain toxic metals and toxic flame retardants. Virgin vinyl limits this problem. My post on flooring goes into more detail.
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 ALL toxic flame retardants – I discuss flame retardants and which products you still find them in in this post. Flame retardants are not classified as VOCs.
No Toxic Metals
I would like to see toxic metals declared and reduced to the most minimal trace level (that is inevitable in natural products and minerals). Many products are actually moving towards toxic metals used as “safer” flame retardants like aluminum-based chemicals or antimicrobials (silver or copper), which is a problem.
Regulations on Chemicals That are Not VOCs
Phthalates should be eliminated from household products. Replacement plasticizers need to be disclosed, and we need to know more about their toxicity and leaching from the products.
Most biocides should be disclosed and 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 Practitioner with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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