A renovated room can be a delight for the senses – the look of fresh paint, the feel of new furniture and fittings ….and that distinctive ‘new’ smell.
It may come as a surprise then, to know that the deep breath you take in as you survey the room is actually a chemical cocktail of toxic substances, or Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), which may emanate from any one of the plastic, adhesive, paint, flooring or textile products used in the fitout.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are carbon containing compounds that readily vapourize into the air at room temperature. When they enter the air, they react with other elements to produce ozone, which causes air pollution. VOCs are typically not acutely toxic, but instead have compounding long-term health effects including breathing problems, headache, burning or watery eyes and nausea.
VOCs are generally emitted from fabrics, carpets, fibreboard, plastic products, glues and solvents, some spray packs and some printed material, paints, varnishes, wax, cleaning products, disinfectants, cosmetics, degreasing products, office equipment, hobby products and fuels.
Whilst the rate of emission may decrease over time as the volatile components are depleted, VOCs are most potent in indoor situations and can greatly affect the quality of your indoor environment. VOCs build up in indoor environments where ventilation rates are not sufficient to remove the gas being emitted.
According to The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), Australians spend over 90% of their lives indoors, so it’s easy to see why interior architects, manufacturers using adhesives, project managers working on office fit outs, painters and cleaners all need to be savvy about ways to minimise VOCs in office spaces, educational facilities, retail fit outs, residential renovations and health contexts.
Research dating back to a 1984 report by the World Health Organisation on ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ clearly links this assortment of ailments to poor indoor air quality and VOCs in a person’s work environment. This in turn can lead to lower employee productivity and morale, and increases sick leave – the antithesis of most company’s aspirations for their workforce.
Recognising the need to address pollutants in green building projects, the GBCA has made Indoor Environment Quality (IEQ) points available for a buildings’ Green Star rating. The IEQ VOC Credit seeks to encourage the use of fitout products that minimise VOCs in buildings.
Occupant surveys in Green Star buildings have consistently shown happier, healthier people. This is backed by recent research from Bond University’s Institute of Sustainable Development and Architecture showing decreased instances of ill-health in Green Star buildings when compared directly to non-Green Star buildings, including a 90% drop in instances of asthma and a 50% drop in those complaining of fatigue.
The GBCA list the ill-effects of VOCs to include eye, nose and skin irritation, headache and lethargy, and state that “…young children, the elderly, people with respiratory problems such as asthma, and people with heightened sensitivity to chemicals, may be more at risk from VOC health effects.”
In light of this, it makes sense to ensure our schools, pre-schools, aged care and health facilities pay close attention to the products they use in their indoor settings. Project managers, procurement officers and specifiers in these fields in particular should be educated on the benefits of low VOC paints, adhesives and sealants, cleaning product and floor covering choices.
Ecolabels like Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA), provide a convenient and easy way to make a good choice with a range of certified products that are better for human health and the environment.
There are many certified products currently on the market to satisfy interior applications, to help minimise VOCs and the associated human health risks.