Smarter Business: Greening Advisor
One of the important families of chemicals to consider when attempting to improve indoor air quality is volatile organic compounds. High concentrations of VOCs are known to cause a number of health problems, including eye and throat irritation, headaches, and damage to the liver and nervous system. In addition, some VOCs are thought to cause cancer. Tests have shown that indoor concentrations of VOCs can be two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations. Immediately after the application of a high-VOC-emitting product, indoor levels can be more than 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels. By purchasing and using low-VOC emissions products, your company reduces health risks to its employees and others in the building.
In addition to the known health effects, VOCs are a principal ingredient of ground-level ozone, which in turn is a key component of urban smog. And when VOCs are deposited on outdoor impervious surfaces or in landfills, they can find their way into the water supply through urban runoff and leaching. Reducing the VOC emissions related to your company’s purchases helps to reduce these negative impacts.
Review the list of product categories below and consider sending a letter to your suppliers asking about the VOC emissions of the products you are currently using. Where possible, consider purchasing products that have been certified by Green Seal. Other sources for product specifications, contract language, and lists of preferable products include The EPA Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Database and the Oikos Green Product Information Database
Sample Contract Language
What Are Low-VOC Emitting Products?
Many commonly used products, such as paints and adhesives, emit a variety of harmful chemicals into the air for months after they have been applied. These chemicals, collectively termed volatile organic compounds, can have a negative impact on indoor air quality and public health. While VOCs were once necessary for good performance in many products, most companies now produce cost-effective low-VOC replacements. Products that emit VOCs include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Paint thinner
- Wood preservatives
- Aerosol sprays
- Cleaners and disinfectants
- Air fresheners
- Stored fuels
- Dry-cleaned clothing
- Caulks and sealants
- Office furniture
What is considered a “low” concentration of VOC emissions will vary according to the product type. For interior paints and stains, for example, low-VOC emitting products have concentrations below 50 g/L. The best way to ensure that the products your company purchases are low-VOC emitters is to consult with your suppliers. Consider using the guidelines in the following sample letter to obtain information on the VOC emissions of the products your company buys.
Sample Letter to Current Suppliers
Our company has initiated an effort to improve its environmental performance in all aspects of its operations. Because you are one of our suppliers, we would like to meet with you to discuss this objective in more detail. We would also like to discuss ways to cost-effectively switch to less harmful products within the next few years.
Many common products, such as paints, adhesives, and pesticides, often emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) long after they have been applied. Reducing the VOC emissions from these products can have a positive effect on public health. High concentrations of VOCs are known to cause health problems, including eye and throat irritation, headaches, and damage to the liver and nervous system. In addition, some VOCs are thought to cause cancer.
We want to reduce as much as possible the harmful effects associated with our operations, and we would like to speak with you about low-VOC emitting alternatives to the products that we are currently using.
We look forward to discussing this with you. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
- EPA: Organic Gases (Volatile Organic Compounds—VOCs)
- Minnesota Department of Health: VOCs in Your Home
- Green Seal Environmental Standards
- EPA: Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers
- EPA – Building Air Quality Action Plan
- OSHA: Indoor Air Quality
- American Lung Association: Indoor Air Quality
- EPA: Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines: Supplier Database
- Environmental Benefits and Cost Savings Calculator for Purchasers