Gaines Group Architects

VOCs in Construction: Is Your Home Making You Sick?

I was at a local hardware store purchasing paint supplies last week. The elderly woman behind me in line (that was very interested in my reasons for purchasing the items) asked why I did not buy any paint. I told her that I wanted to use a paint that had No-VOC’s in the tint and that store did not offer that as an option. She looked puzzled and asked me what is a VOC. So I explained chemical off-gasing, links to long-term adverse health effects, and my goal to protect my children. Her concern for my purchase quickly faded (this often happens when someone asks me about building science in passing) and turned to being defensive for the “way she always does it.” She explained that she was too old to worry about things like that, after all, everything causes cancer these days. So is that the answer, don’t worry about it since everything is bad, or is it better to understand and try to change. Of course my goal is to constantly learn more and to try to be better. So here is some of what I know about VOCs and the link to health issues – my understanding is limited and I am always looking for more information.

VOCsMany products that are used in home construction have various chemicals that are released into the air post installation. Some of these gases are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Concentrations of VOCs are often found to be higher indoors than outdoors (an obvious conclusion looking at air circulation and volume of space). The levels of these chemicals is found to be even higher in a ‘energy-efficient’ home that does not have a dedicated fresh air system integrated with the heating and cooling system (remember when a HVAC system included ventilation and not just heating and cooling?). VOCs can be found in many products including paints, lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, printers, correction fluid, and glues. So we typically select products that have low or No VOCs in them for our clients and for our own personal use. This is not an across the board answer as there are many considerations, but it is certainly a huge factor as all of our projects are designed to be energy efficient. The other strategy used in combination with product selection is to include a dedicated fresh air source integrated with the HVAC system. While there are no guarantees in life, these two strategies will certainly diminish a known risk the health of your family. It will reduce the probability of headaches, nausea, eye nose and throat irritation, and possible damage to the central nervous system, and kidneys and livers.

With the known correlation between VOCs and various types of cancer, don’t you owe it to yourself, your family, and your friends to use products that are No VOCs? I cannot imagine ever being to old to care about prevention.