Just how low the VOC level needs to be for a given product to qualify for inclusion in GreenSpec depends on the product category. For most products, we require certification to California’s health-based emissions standard, CDPH Std Method v1.1 standard (also referred to as California Section 01350), which tests a product’s resultant VOC concentrations in the space after a given period of time. For wet-applied products like paints, caulks, and adhesives, we still also look for VOC content instead of, or in addition to, verified low emissions; this is because emissions testing doesn’t adequately test initial offgassing, and VOC content is currently the only widely available proxy.
Target Coatings makes professional-grade waterborne finishes, including Emtech EM2000wvx, a clear waterborne alkyd that can be used for interior or exterior applications. Appropriate for use on cabinets, furniture, and in moist environments, this UV-resistant coating has a VOC level of 23 g/l and contains no hazardous airborne pollutants (HAPs). EM2000wvx is formulated to be used with a sprayer but can be used with a brush or pad.
Clear finishes protect woodwork against aging, scratches, moisture, and the chemicals found in common cleaners. There are a number of finish options available, from natural, low-toxic products primarily used on residential woodwork through factory-applied finishes where added durability is required, such as those used on cabinetry or commercial architectural millwork.
The current South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) limit for VOC emissions from clear finishes is 275 g/l, 250 g/l for stains, and 730 g/l for shellac. The environmental and health burden of these VOCs varies, however. Shellac uses ethanol (alcohol) as a solvent, for instance, which is far less toxic than toluene and xylene used in some lacquers. Many products that require a solvent now use VOCs exempt from regulation, such as acetone. Those aren’t always safe, though.
Stains are available as pigments or dyes. Pigment stains sit on top of the wood and some still use slow curing solvents to control the amount of stain on the wood. Those that use waterborne products are safer but can be difficult to work because of their fast drying time. Dyes are popular because they are dissolved in water and penetrate into the wood, providing greater color control and depth.
Waterborne polyurethanes and acrylics are less toxic than varnishes that use petroleum-based solvents, but waterborne products contain glycol ether solvents, which can be reproductive toxicants.
VOCs and hazardous airborne pollutants (HAPs) are significantly more of an indoor air quality concern during application when the product is still wet. Allowing a product to fully cure before bringing it into an occupied space minimizes exposure risks. When possible, have woodwork finished offsite where a factory can prevent most emissions from entering the environment.
Several companies offer Greenguard-certified products that only meet the emissions requirements if allowed to cure for a set amount of time, normally between 3 and 14 days. These products are meant for professionals and are typically applied at the shop.
When allowed to fully cure, the emissions from clear finishes should be minimal, but some chemically sensitive people may still react to these products.
Look for stains and clear finishes such as those listed by GreenSpec that are below SCAQMD standards for VOCs; contain no heavy metals, phthalates, or aromatic solvents; and/or are natural products with less environmental burden.
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