Q: Some manufacturers state that their cribs' finishes are non-toxic.
What does that mean? Does it mean there are no VOCs emitted after the finish has been properly dried? If I do not smell any smell, does it
mean there are no VOCs?
—asked by Irina San Rafael, CA
A: In general, distrust of green labels is well founded as most are not accurate, reliable or third party certified. Chemically sensitive people can often smell VOCs better than others but many people can hardly notice a difference. It's always best to test for your own personal reactions, do research on the internet and consult with people who have experience with these products.
Your question shows deep concern for the reliability of labeling as well as present governmental standards in our country. It also addresses a health question of its own—are our noses adequate to determine VOC content or must we rely on scientific instruments?
The real story behind the label
In general, distrust of green labels is well founded as most are not accurate, reliable or third party certified. Even the labels that seem to be valid can be called into question as they all rely on MSDS sheets to evaluate the chemical nature of a product. As I have written in many of these Green Home Guide answers, MSDS sheets are government forms voluntarily filled out and not overseen by anyone. Manufacturers can write whatever they want you to see and leave out whatever they don't want you to know about because no one verifies what they say.
For example, proprietary ingredients that are considered "trade secrets" do not need to be listed, nor are chemicals that amount to 1% of the total volume, nor are any unknown hazards. That means if its not known or listed on the TSCA (Toxic Substance Control Act) of 1976 list of hazards, you don't have to list it on your label. It is now well known that more than 85, 000 chemicals exist and only 200 have been classified as hazardous. The rest have been either grandfathered into the system as "not bad enough" or simply never tested.
All of this requires that the consumer do his or her own homework which is near impossible unless you have a background in chemistry and are able to convince manufacturers to tell you their trade secrets--both of which are tall orders to fill.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are those chemicals that combine with ground level ozone to produce smog. The EPA has instituted regulations that control VOC levels to reduce outdoor air pollultion only. It is not concerned about what you or your baby eat or breathe indoors.
VOCs are both good and bad and can be smelled if your nose is good. Chemically sensitive people can often smell VOCs better than others but many people can hardly notice a difference. In either case, its not easy to know whether the smell is good for you or not. Sometimes VOCs flash off quickly and sometimes they can continue emitting hazardous odors for months or even years.
In general, if it smells foul, its better to stay away from it. Safety first. Our olfactory sense is pretty intelligent and can usually detect odors that are not good for your health, but you can't alway rely on it. It's always best to test out new products to see what impact they have on your health before using them in a major way or before subjecting them to children who are very sensitive.
How do you make sure it's non-toxic?
Natural products are usually safer but may not always be tolerated by children. If they have allergies or sensitivities to a particular chemical, they may react quickly. Because all VOCs are different, some are emitted more slowly and in lower concentrations. This can provide us with a false sense of security because the odor may not be "too bad" but over many years of breathing can cause serious health problems. It's always best to test for your own personal reactions, do research on the internet and consult with people who have experience with these products.
For more details about VOC's and Health click here: VOC's and Health
For more information on how to test products click here: Testing for sensitivity