Part of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is to provide better environments for building occupants. Something we do every day but don’t think about much is breathing. Our lungs are very sensitive to contaminants and dust.

If you have ever walked into a new building or been in a new car you have smelled something distinct, VOCs. Volatile Organic Compounds are what give cars and buildings that new, distinct smell. For many people it is an unpleasant smell and for good reason. VOCs are suspected of causing respiratory problems and even cancer. They can also cause liver and kidney damage as well as nausea and central nervous system damage.

Many building materials such as carpet, pre-finished floors, paints, sealers and cleaners all contain VOCs. Individually it may not be much. But add a large number of products together and that can be the final proverbial straw that breaks the camels back. The other ingredient is the tighter building envelopes we have today. Particularly on high performance and net-zero energy buildings.

Luckily architects, mechanical engineers and LEED APs are knowledgeable about such issues. We can help guide you through the products on your project. If you are doing something simple like painting or replacing your carpet it is worth it to take a moment to read the label carefully to see if it is a low VOC product. If there is no label or it does not contain and VOC information you can look up the products MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). If you can’t find that then it may be wise to look for a different product.

Unfortunately there are no hard guidelines for what constitutes a low VOC product. Some manufacturers will advertise their product as such. The South Coast Air Quality Management District rue #1168 provides some guidelines which have been adopted as requirements for points in LEED.


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