VOC testing in environmental assessment methods

An article by Alice Delia, Laboratory Director, Prism Analytical Technologies, Inc.

Talk about “green” buildings seems to be everywhere these days. But what does that really mean? While initially green buildings may appear to be simply an environmentalist’s dream, they are far more than that. Green buildings extend building design and use concepts to their most efficient and effective end while also fostering communication and cooperation between the design and construction teams, the client or end user and other parties.

It’s becoming widely accepted that the benefits of green buildings far outweigh the costs. Efficiencies incorporated into the design and operation result in decreased operating expenses over the life of the building which quickly compensate for any increased initial costs. An even greater benefit is the increase in employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity. Since employee costs are over half of company expenses, this represents substantial savings in decreased employee turnover, fewer sick days and more work performed per employee.

There are two primary interrelated types of programs in green building design. The first targets the building design, materials, and operational systems. British-based BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) and US-based LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) are the most common systems. Both incorporate many similar features and requirements although the perspective is a little different.

The other type of building certification is relatively new and focuses on occupant health and well-being. Although BREEAM and LEED incorporate some of this, programs like the WELL Building Standard go much further and use health-based research and education to design the best possible environment for occupants.

All these programs require substantial documentation of design, materials, and operating specifications. They also incorporate extensive testing to demonstrate compliance with the various credits. And while similar, the specific requirements are different for all three certifications.

The VOC testing for the IAQ/IEQ credit changed significantly when LEED introduced a set of target VOCs in addition to the single total VOC (TVOC) value that has historically been used to assess VOC levels (initially in 2013 in a pilot credit and officially in 2016 with the full implementation of LEED version 4). The 33 target VOCs are drawn from the California Department of Public Health standard method for testing VOC emissions using environmental chambers. Each VOC has a health-based Reference Exposure Level (REL) that is used as the upper concentration limit. However, many of these VOCs have RELs greater than the 500 µg/m3 TVOC threshold. This has created some confusion regarding how to evaluate test results, however, if a single VOC is greater than 500 µg/m3 it will cause the TVOC requirement to fail. Interestingly, the pilot credit (PC) 68 introduced in 2013 does not require TVOC so it would be possible to pass according to that version and still have a TVOC value greater than 500 µg/m3. However, PC68 also requires that the ten highest concentration VOCs in the sample be reported and mitigated separately if they have known adverse health impacts.

The table below shows the target concentrations for the LEED, BREEAM and WELL standards.



PC* 68 (2013) v4






Formaldehyde (ppb) 27 27 27 80** 27
TVOC (µg/m3) 500 500 300 500
4-PCH (µg/m3) 6.5
CDPH Target Contaminants Yes Yes
Other Contaminants Yes

* PC – Pilot Credit

** WHO guidelines for indoor air quality: Selected pollutants, 2010.

For more information about Prism Analytical Technologies, Inc. visit www.pati-air.com.

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