GreenGuard: The Intersection of Sustainability and Health

Concerns about indoor air pollution and “sick building syndrome” have increased in recent years as groups like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on research showing that the quality of indoor air can be many times worse than outdoor air. Most people spend as much as 90 percent of their day indoors, making the health risks from indoor air pollutants a significant concern. One organization, GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI), is helping to protect human health and quality through outreach and education, as well as by certifying building products and materials for low chemical emissions.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are one of the biggest sources of indoor air pollution and they originate from the products and materials that we use in our homes and buildings every day- including furniture, mattresses, cleaning products and electronics. VOCs can trigger asthma symptoms, headaches, nausea, throat irritation, delayed cognition and even reproductive and developmental disorders.

The success of green building programs represents a step in the right direction, but more still needs to be done to ensure that green buildings are also healthier for occupants. Many green buildings focused on energy efficiency are built to be practically airtight, which can seal in VOCs and other pollutants. Choosing products that are low-emitting, like those certified by GreenGuard, may be a better way to reduce airborne chemical emissions and indoor air pollution.

GreenGuard is 100% voluntary and includes an Indoor Air Quality Certification and a Children & Schools Certification. Both programs ensure that a product is low-emitting by requiring it to undergo rigorous scientific testing, quarterly monitoring and annual re-certification.

Manufacturers who achieve certification demonstrate a commitment to human health and healthier indoor environments. Certification takes dedication and determination and can sometimes require manufacturers to reformulate their chemical composition, supply chain and manufacturing processes just to pass.

The folks at GreenGuard are pleased with the increased awareness about indoor air quality. They are fielding more and more inquiries from concerned parents about products that give off a certain “smell” and they are seeing the proliferation of “no voc” and “low voc” paints on store shelves. But there is still a gap in awareness between things like VOC content and VOC emissions. For instance, not all paints labeled “no VOC” or “low VOC” are actually low-emitting.

Their goal is to help the industry realize that at the heart of sustainability is the creation of buildings that have a minimal impact on the planet and on the people that occupy them. GreenGuard believes that good indoor air quality and pre-occupancy clearance testing should be a prerequisite for all sustainable building programs, not just an option.

With so many products sold in the U.S. being manufactured in China and surrounding nations, GEI decided to expand their influence with the recently announced debut of its overseas operations in Beijing, China.

If you want to reduce the toxic air in your building, choose low-emitting products and materials and regularly ventilate your home or building with outdoor air. For more information, please visit their redesigned website at

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.

5 responses

  1. I fully agree with “pre-occupancy clearance testing should be a prerequisite for all sustainable building programs.” I would even go one step further and require it on ALL building. California Air Resources Board's report published December 15, 2009 states: “Nearly all homes (98%) had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation…” This month a custom built “Green Points Certified” CARB compliant $3.5 Million home had 198 ppb in the master bedroom. This was with the front door wide opened, windows cracked opened, cooled to 68 degrees and the 24 x 365 pwoered fresh air system operating.

    I just visited and could not find where they required “pre-occupancy” testing. They appear like all other programs I've seen where they regulate some products emission rate in chamber test conditions. There programs igorne formaldehyde fiberglass wall insulation that is typically one of the largest formaldehyde sources in homes.

    Some of these programs even claim to be healthier without any research backing up those claims. There is published research that shows “green” homes are actually less healthy to the occupants.

    When “pre-occupancy clearance testing” becomes required, the question is what conditions and what concentrations are acceptable. I'd suggest for 6 hours prior to start and for duration of test doors and windows closed, interior temperature 78 degrees and test for 24 hours. California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessments recommends not exceed 7 ppb in homes. EPA requires the offices their employees occupy not exceed 16 ppb and that is for only 40 hours a week and healthy adults. Studies show decreased lung function at 25 ppb, increased asthma at 50 ppb and we all know what happened in FEMA trailers. Compare these concetrations with the 200 ppb in a “green” home. I trust you understand why I”m a little jaded.

    1. Hi there! Formaldehyde is absolutely a chemical the GREENGUARD Certification Program screens for; after all, the EPA classifies it as a known carcinogen. That's why the fiberglass building insulation we certify must meet rigorous chemical emissions requirements for formaldehyde and other VOCs. Check out which insulation products are low-emitting here: Hope that helps!

  2. What I'm saying is the GreenGuard certification program (and all others that I'm aware of) is NOT health based. These standards are based on chamber tests followed by modeling to estimate the concentration in room air. Most of these certification programs closely follow the CARB standards. Yet CARB specifical advises against using their model for residential use.

    Greenguard web site indicates “the ventilation rate of 0.45 ACH is the recommended typical residential ventilation rate from the USEPA Exposure Factors Handbook (Table 17-31) (August 1997…” Unfortunately, that doesn't reflect the reality of homes built in 2002-2004 or today. Because of the desire to save energy, many of the 2002-4 home have ventilation rates of less than 0.10 ACH. Today's home are even tighter.

    Another critical issue is what concentration is health based? California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessments lowered their residential recommendation from 27 ppb to 7 ppb in December 2008. Yet today most certification programs continue using standards based on the 27 ppb. EPA allows 16 ppb in their office buildings. Studies show decreased lung function at 25 ppb and increased asthma at 50 ppb. Yet your web site indicates each product can produce 25 ppb or 50 ppb depending on the use.

    Most of the certifications are based on a constant 73 degrees. Yet ultility companies ask consumers to cool only to 78 degrees. There is also the issue of wall cavities being between the interior and exterior temperature and if sun exposure significantly higher than even exterior temperatures. This is significant as formaldehyde approximately doubles with each 10 degree increase in temperature. So insulation that passes a certification test can be emitting 10 times the formaldehyde when installed in an exterior wall then it does in a chamber test.

    Furthermore the certification is for each individual product. The more products that are used the more toxin that will be present.

    Lastly, the proof is in the finished product. In June 2010 a “green” certified home built with CARB compliant material was found to have 198 ppb in the master bedroom. This was with the home cooled to 68 degrees, 24 x 365 fan forced fresh air operating, with windows cracked opened. Clearly this would indicate a significant data point that would suggest the certification programs fail to protect the occupants health.

    What matters is the concentration of the toxins the occupants of these homes/buildings will be breathing when they occupy the building. Certification programs only indicate the amount of toxins emitting from one product versus another and are clearly not health based. Testing of the finished product, not the individual components, is the only way to determine health.

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