Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have become a major focus of regulatory boards and agencies across the globe. There are ongoing studies and investigations into thousands of these compounds to determine their impact on health and the environment so rules, limits, and laws are constantly changing and shifting. These rules and limits can be set at the federal, state or even regional level. Both the federal and state EPAs have some rules, restrictions and guidelines around VOC levels. There are also some regions within states that set their own guidelines and rules for VOC emissions. Most notably would be the California Air Resource Board (CARB) and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). The main focus of these groups is typically centered on the environmental impact and the outdoor air quality that is affected by VOC emissions, however indoor air quality and health effects are also considered. For more information about what VOCs are, please read our Understanding VOC guide.
There is quite a lot of complexity surrounding VOC rules and regulations that can make it difficult and confusing for the consumer and manufacturer alike. Each regulatory agency typically sets their own standards and limits which are also constantly changing and under review.
- Calculations – Rules and guidelines are established on how the VOC of a coating is calculated including which compounds can be considered exempt from the calculations. One agency may consider a certain VOC exempt while another may not, meaning the exact same product would be two different VOC levels depending on where the product is used (this is usually a difference between countries and not state to state).
- Limits – VOC limits are set by the agencies and will vary based on the specific product category. This means that the VOC limit may depend on how a product is labeled or marketed. A good example of this is from the SCAQMD list that shows current limits based on product categories (see below). 2
- Exceptions – As with most rules and laws, there are exceptions to the rules. If you look at the footnotes from the SCAQMD link mentioned below, you’ll see a few exceptions. The most common would be the small container exemption. Many states and regions have exemptions for products sold in quantities that are one quart or less. The idea is that these higher VOC products can still be used for crafts and small projects, but it would be more expensive and less convenient to complete a large project using only quarts (or less) containers. The objective is to try to reduce VOCs on the larger projects because there will be a larger impact on the overall emissions. Another common exception is the end user of the products. Some areas may be able to use higher VOC products when factory finished professionally, but those same products may not be used to site apply in the same region.
- Jurisdiction – Typically, the rules and regulations are based on where the products are used, not where they are purchased. This is an attempt to prevent purchasing higher VOC products in areas where they are allowed, and using them in areas where they are not allowed. That being said, most areas will only sell what can be legally used in that area.
What This Means to the Consumer?
- Not all products will be available to all customers in all areas. In the internet age and the use of forums that span the globe, it is important to note that the same options will not always be available because you are under different regulations. Regulations are also always changing, so what may have been available 10 years ago, may no longer be available in your area.
- It is important to know the rules and regulations for where you will be using the products. As mentioned in point 4 in the previous section, the regulations are enforced on where the product is USED, not purchased. If you purchase a high VOC product in a different region or state and use it a restricted area that would be breaking a law.