sky.jpgMy husband and I are preparing for a kitchen renovation, and we are eagerly in search of materials that won’t hurt the planet or our health in order to give us a beautiful cooking and eating space.  For countertops, cabinets, and floors, that means minimizing our exposure to VOCs, often referred to as “offgassing.”

Eco-friendly design literature talks about VOCs much like how eco-cosmetics experts talk about parabens–it’s a ubiquitous concern.  For kitchens, the best materials (like IceStone countertops – recycled glass suspended in a concrete matrix….in yummy colors!) don’t emit any at all.

But what are VOCs, anyway, and why should we be worried about them?  First, VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound, so let’s break that down:

Volatile: meaning a substance that vaporaizes or evaporates into the atmosphere under normal conditions.

Organic: meaning any chemical that contains carbon.

Compound: meaning a substance formed by the combination of two or more distinct chemicals.

So why are VOCs bad for indoor air quality and general health?  Click here for the EPA’s literature on VOCs.  But if you’d rather have me translate:

The most common VOC is methane, which we know is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  For the kitchen, though, the chief area of VOC concern is in the wood preservatives (chiefly formaldehyde) that are found in many wood floors and cabinets (not to mention cleaning solvents, but that’s a post-design conversation….). When the VOCs vaporize into the atmosphere, they get into our bodies through our nose and mouth. And that can lead to asthmatic or allergic symptoms, as well as headaches and general immune system supression.

Other things that can emit VOCs in your home:

–some office equipment, including laser printers
–cigarette smoke (emits benzene, a known carcinogen. But you knew that, right?)

So what’s to be done?  Two things, really: ventilate your home to give those gasses somewhere to go other than your lungs, and choose low- or no-VOC materials whenever possible.  Here are some to get you started:

FreshAire Paint

Flor Carpet

IceStone Counters

GreenHome Guide’s Cabinet Page

What do you know about VOCs?  What choices have you made to minimize them in your home?

(image via:

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