By Brett Miller, NWFA Vice President Technical Standards, Training & Certification
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are all around us. They are substances formed by combining organic chemicals that are both man-made and naturally occurring, and that off-gas from either a solid or a liquid into the surrounding atmosphere. Not all are harmful, but some have been linked to adverse human health issues, as well as environmental damage.
VOCs are categorized into two distinct categories: biogenic and anthropogenic. Biogenic VOCs are naturally occurring and are not harmful to humans nor the environment. The most common type of biogenic VOC comes from plants.
Plants, however, are not the only producers of biogenic VOCs. Other biogenic VOC producers include animals, fungi, mold, and other microscopic organisms, like bacteria. Basically, if it occurs in nature, and you can smell it, it’s the result of a biogenic VOC.
The other distinct category of VOCs is anthropogenic. Anthropogenic VOCs are man-made and can be harmful to humans and/or the environment. There are many sources of anthropogenic VOCs. One of the most-common sources is fossil fuels. VOCs from this source are produced by liquids like gasoline or propane. They also can be produced by burning such liquids as fuel. Automobile exhaust is one example of an anthropogenic VOC that results from burning fossil fuels.
The solvents used in paints and coatings are another source of anthropogenic VOCs. While paint is the most commonly recognized source of this type of VOC, other sources can include glue and wood flooring finishes. These types of VOCs have minimal adverse health effects on humans, but can include short-term eye, ear, nose, and throat irritation, as well as short-term drowsiness.
Another type of anthropogenic VOC is formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is used in a wide variety of products including paints, adhesives, composite wood products, and even cigarettes. Under normal circumstances, formaldehyde is not harmful, but at high levels of prolonged exposure, it can be highly toxic, and possibly even lethal.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that all composite wood products sold, supplied, offered for sale, manufactured, or imported be labeled as Toxic Substance Control Act Title VI compliant. These products include hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, particleboard, and any other household or other finished goods that contain these products, including flooring.
VOCs are highly regulated in the United States, and wood flooring professionals must adhere to these regulations. This is true at all levels of the supply chain, from manufacturing, to distribution, to retail, to contracting, and even importing.
The two main organizations that regulate VOC emissions in the United States include the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Compliance with VOC regulations is dependent on where you are working, not where your business is located. For example, if your business is located in Annapolis, MD, and you are installing wood flooring at a job site in Washington, DC, you must comply with the VOCs regulations that are in effect for Washington, DC. Keep in mind these regulations can change for every job site. In California, regulations are subject to change among different counties. Job sites just a few miles apart may be subject to completely different regulations. It is your responsibility to know the laws that are applicable for the area in which you are working.
Failure to comply with VOC regulations can result in huge fines that potentially can put you out of business. To put this risk into perspective, let’s look at a hypothetical example of finishes that would be found in a typical wood flooring contractor’s van.
Most contractors carry a variety of finishes in their work vehicles. Wood flooring stains and finishes have VOCs that are regulated, so every container of stain or finish would be subject to VOC laws.
For our example, our contractor’s van includes the following finishes:
Six quarts of stain, with VOCs of 550 grams per liter;
Two gallons of stain, with VOCs of 550 grams per liter;
Ten gallons of sealer, with VOCs of 550 grams per liter;
Ten gallons of OMU poly, with VOCs of 525 grams per liter; and
Five to 10 gallons of waterborne finish, with VOCs of less than 350 grams per liter.
If this contractor were working in New Jersey, VOC compliance and violations would apply as follows:
The six quarts of stain would be compliant because there is an exemption for stains sold, bought, and used in this volume.
The two gallons of stain would be in violation because they exceed the regulated VOC limit of 250 grams per liter. This results in a fine of $1,200.
The 10 gallons of sealer would be in violation because they exceed the regulated VOC limit of 200 grams per liter. This results in a fine of $10,000.
The 10 gallons of OMU poly would be in violation because they exceed the regulated VOC limit of 350 grams per liter. This results in a fine of $6,000.
Finally, the five to 10 gallons of waterborne would be compliant because they are each under the VOC limit of 350 grams per liter.
So, in our example, our contractor would have potential fines totaling $17,200. What’s even worse is that these fines can be imposed every day until all the products are compliant, so it is easy to see how financially devastating noncompliance for VOC regulations could be.
But the fines don’t stop there. The entire supply chain must be compliant. Here’s a hypothetical example of fines that could be assessed for the distributor selling these products. The main fine applicable to distributors is for incorrect documentation. The fine assessed for this violation is $4,000. However, this fee is per incident, per order, so it could compound quickly. In addition, if the contractor is found to be liable because of incorrect documentation provided by the distributor, the distributor could be fined the same amount as the contractor, $17,200.
So, in our hypothetical example, assuming we have just one incorrect documentation violation, and incorrect documentation caused the contractor to be noncompliant, the total fine for our distributor would be $21,200.
The manufacturer also can be fined for incorrect documentation. As with the distributor, the fine assessed for this violation is $4,000, per incident, per order. In addition, if the contractor is found to be liable because of incorrect documentation provided to the distributor by the manufacturer, the manufacturer could be fined the same amount as the contractor, $17,200.
For just one incorrect documentation violation (causing the contractor to be noncompliant), the total fine for our manufacturer would be $21,200.
As you can see, fines can accumulate quickly. In our example, just one violation on one day could result in fines for our supply chain totaling nearly $60,000. And that does not include any additional fines that could be imposed if the products were imported. Fines also could be higher in other areas of the country. California has some of the most stringent VOC regulations in the nation. Regulations vary by region, by state, and even by county, so it is recommended that you do your homework and understand the VOC regulations that impact you.
The National Wood Flooring Association has detailed information about VOCs available through NWFA University, an online training platform that is convenient and affordable. More information is available at nwfa.org/nwfa-university.aspx.
Photos and charts courtesy National Wood Flooring Association