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February 17, 2005 - Green Building Grows in Popularity, Efficacy

A large and growing aspect of the green-building movement are specifically issues relating to Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) and indoor-air quality. For five years now, a standard has been followed for commercial and institutional building.  Residential buildings and new consctruction have recently become an area where extended guidelines would aid development and encourage growth. The current regulatory definition of VOCs set by the Environmental Protection Agency is based on a chemical's contribution to smog, an outdoor phenomenon. Moreover, there are still relatively few contractors who know much about low- or no-VOC products. That leaves homeowners wondering just how to clear their air with confidence.

VOCs are carbon-based chemicals including benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde that evaporate easily at room temperature and are widely used in products from particleboard to carpeting. Most of us can tolerate a moderate amount of them. However, intense exposure, or even low-level exposure over time, can trigger what's known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, like that experienced by Wolff, who eventually had to move from her house. In addition to the risk of triggering severe chemical sensitivities, many VOCs are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as probable carcinogens. Additionally, studies suggest a link between indoor air contamination and asthma, which grew 60 percent among Americans between 1992 and 2002, to more than 20 million cases, according to the American Lung Association.

Of course, environmental health advocates emphasize that indoor-air quality isn't just about VOCs. There's also mold, fumes from attached garages, and proper ventilation to consider. Unfortunately, there aren't many easy answers.

And it's not just how you build and furnish your house that can affect its air quality, it's how you clean and maintain it as well. Many disinfectants, cleansers, paint strippers, and air fresheners contain a cocktail of organic chemicals. A recent study by British researchers, for instance, published in the December issue of the British medical journal Thorax, correlated breathing problems in infants with the use of various cleaning products in the home. Indeed, the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at UMass-Lowell has been partnering with public-housing authorities and school districts around Massachusetts to test low-emitting cleaning and building products, measuring the performance of these products in their "solvent substitution lab."

Experts say a national standard for homes will make a big difference, offering corporations, consumers, and homebuilders the consistency needed to create demand and market incentives. With the new green movement there is added exposure for healthy living and family health becomes more of a priority.  The complexity and wealth of information impedes general understanding and prohibits growht.  Clear guidelines in a centralized location will invite the regular homeowner to research and learn about recent developments.

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