Since world war II, chemical use has grown by leaps and bounds. In 1945, annual production of synthetic chemical substances was 1 billion pounds. By 1987 it was 287 billion pounds, and growing every year. During that same period, doctors began noticing the phenomenon now recognized as multiple chemical sensitivity, a condition in which individuals become sensitized to chemicals by indoor air pollution and other exposures, and then suffer a variety of adverse reactions to low levels of chemicals from consumer and building products. In 1945 this phenomenon was unheard of. In 1987 it was estimated to affect up to 15% of the population. There is no credible study or toxicity data on the long term human effects of 4 out of 5 of the 50,000 most common chemicals, and there is nearly no data on how these chemicals behave in combination. Some of these are extremely toxic. We become exposed to these chemicals because they are in building materials, paints, cleaning supplies and anything made from plastic or vinyl. The off-gassing of these substances cause indoor air pollution that is responsible for thousands of deaths every year according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The focus of the EPA is on the chemicals that cause outdoor air pollution. Many of these pollutants are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC”s), which means that they are chemically unstable. They turn into gas or combine with other chemicals… then you breathe them. Not all VOC’s are harmful to people. The EPA only defines VOC’s harmful to people as those that contribute to outdoor smog, so even chemicals as toxic as ammonia and acetone (nail polish remover) can be included in “zero VOC” products. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the term “VOC” recently to the extent that many have begun to believe that all VOC’s are “bad” and should be eliminated. As in most things, this is superficial and an overstatement. Not only has this focus tarred all VOC’s with the same brush, it shows no concern with the toxicity of various chemicals. The point is we must consider the effect of specific ingredients, and not whether something is VOC or not. By way of example, consider the difference between ethylene-glycol and propylene glycol. The former, essentially anti-freeze, is used by many paint companies to provide freeze-thaw resistance and a “wet edge”. It is a VOC and extremely toxic. Propylene glycol on the other hand is a VOC which can be used for the same purposes, and has no indication of toxicity. One ingredient is poison, and the other benign, and yet they contribute essentially the same VOC content to the finished product. Conversely “zero VOC” in and of itself does not mean the product is safer.