Indoor Air Quality: Low VOCs, High Reward

By Barbra Murray, Contributing Writer Strictly defined, as per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are pollutants that permeate the air as gases from certain solids or liquids. Substantial VOC content in products is, of course, a bad thing from both an environmental and health standpoint; but when

Strictly defined, as per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are pollutants that permeate the air as gases from certain solids or liquids. Substantial VOC content in products is, of course, a bad thing from both an environmental and health standpoint; but when it comes to indoor air quality, it is the VOC emission level that is most important in terms of monitoring impact. High levels can have short- and length-term health consequences ranging from the triggering of asthma and allergies to neurological disease.

“It’s incredibly important to make sure you’re limiting the chemical emissions in your apartments because they are such a small space and you spend a lot of time in them, so you are very susceptible to problems with indoor air quality,” says Mark Rossolo, director of public affairs for GreenGuard Environmental Institute, the certification body of UL Environment. According to the EPA, levels of several volatile organics average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. And the list of potential sources of VOC emissions in multifamily buildings is a long one. This classification of toxins can rear its ugly head in products ranging from the paint on the ceiling to the carpet on the floor and any number of points in between.

For most, paint and lacquer are the offending products that come to mind as the most obvious potential source of unwelcome emissions indoors. As Rossolo points out, “Everybody understands that paint emits; you can smell it typically.” Yet today, in a growing number of cases, the “smell” can be deceiving. Paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore & Co. recently emerged from the lab with a new coloring method that, when integrated with coatings, adds nothing to the mix in terms of emissions. It’s a zero-VOC tinting method. “The gist of it is, we didn’t just make a low-VOC paint, we made a low-VOC system,” says Carl Minchew, director of Environmental Health & Safety at Benjamin Moore. “We had to take the time and make the investment in that technology, but now we have this platform of no-VOC colorants that are made for water-based coatings, and they actually enhance the performance of the coatings that they go into.”

Jim Carrillo, vice president of residential properties with commercial real estate company The Towbes Group Inc., eyes the potential long-term advantages of such a product for his company, whose 14 apartment properties became 100 percent smoke-free zones as of June 1—lobbies, fitness facilities, 2,000 residential units and all. “The turn cost—the cost that we incur to turn an apartment when a resident moves out—is a huge expense, and I believe that using low-VOC paint over a long period of time, combined with the fact that residents will not be smoking in the apartments, will help us reduce those costs,” Carrillo explains. “Also, we have a fair percentage of both seniors and children in our communities and just like going smoke free, it looks like all of the research is pointing to the fact that using low-VOC paint is also beneficial to the most vulnerable of the populations. I think we have to consider it.”

The walls are not the only culprits indoors; floors can also emit VOCs. Carpets can emanate 4-phenylcyclohexene and some vinyl floorings give off styrene. As is the case with paints, there are low-emitting alternatives, including modular carpet.  It’s not just the carpet itself that can be a problem—the glue utilized to attach the carpet is a potential source of high VOCs as well—but some modular products essentially kill those two birds with one stone. Environmentally friendly modular carpet and flooring manufacturer Interface Inc.’s carpet tiles all meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED low-emitting carpet criteria, and its TacTiles connectors allow for glue-free installation. “Its use in multifamily properties is a growing area for us,” says Mikhail Davis, manager of strategic sustainability with Interface. “There have been projects where we’ve done the common areas because of the heavy wear issues; we’ve gotten more traction there.” Still, the modular carpet concept in general has yet to really catch fire in the multifamily industry. “I think it’s mostly just the first-cost versus use-cost challenge,” he suggests. “Developers are looking at their capital budgets, which include buying the carpet. They are not necessarily looking at the lifetime cost of maintaining the carpet and having it look good longer.” The long-term savings come from the fact that modular flooring allows for spot treatment, so to speak, of stains as well as wear and tear. An individual tile can simply be disconnected from the group, removed, replaced and recycled. It’s the realization of the future costs savings in replacement that is slowly leading to an increase in the use of modular, low-VOC carpeting. “The green part of it hasn’t come that much into play,” Davis notes. “It’s not the primary buying criteria, but people are really excited when they find out about the low-VOC emissions after they’ve decided based on cost and performance and the other traditional carpet attributes.”

You can’t have it all; rather, you can’t get rid of it all. A property completely void of VOCs is akin to a picnic sans ants; they’re going to show up, so the real issue is keeping their presence to a minimum. The variety of low-VOC offerings provides numerous means of diminishing emissions. Even signage, like the “Management Office” plaque in the lobby, can be a contributor, as can cabinetry. GreenGuard has certified products in both categories. Low-VOC kitchen and bath countertop materials are readily available. The lovely couch in the lobby can also emit toxic chemicals. As reported in a 2010 issue of Japan’s Bulletin of National Institute of Health Sciences, a study of 10 residential furniture items and electrical appliances—including sofas, desks, refrigerators and desktop computers—concluded that sofas produced the highest emission rate of total VOCs.

“Energy efficiency is great but it really has dominated the green discussion and things like indoor air quality have kind of fallen by the wayside a little bit,” Rossolo says. But a low-VOC crusade, just like the green movement, could ride on the coattails of a much grander trend. “For owners of multi-housing units, if they can position their buildings as healthy or healthier, as opposed to green, we think they’re going to see a lot more traction because everybody can relate to a health message; not everybody buys the green message.”