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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): A Brief Regulatory Overview

Race car drifting with smoke behind it

April 20, 2018

What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) are chemicals that vaporize (become a gas) at room temperature, and are the leading cause of ground-level air pollution (also known as “smog”).

VOCs react with nitrogen oxides – particularly on hot summer days – to form smog. Common sources of VOC emission include car exhausts, gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment, gasoline dispensing stations, industrial coatings, inks, printing shops, paints, household chemicals, and building and furnishing materials.

In sufficient quantities, VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritations, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders and memory impairment. In more extreme cases, some are known to cause cancer in animals, and some are suspected of causing cancer in humans.

Indoor and Outdoor Environments

Organic chemical compounds are ubiquitous in both indoor and outdoor environments, as they have become essential ingredients in many products and materials. Outdoors, VOCs are volatilized (released into the air) mostly during manufacture or use of everyday products and materials, whereas indoors, VOCs are mainly released into the air from the use of products and materials containing VOCs.

While VOCs are of concern as both indoor and outdoor air pollutants, the emphasis of concern is different. The main concern indoors is the potential for VOCs to adversely impact the health of people that are exposed, whereas outdoors – while VOCs can still be a human health concern – the EPA regulates them mainly because of their ability to create “photochemical smog”, which is haze in the atmosphere accompanied by high levels of ozone and nitrogen oxides, caused by the action of sunlight on pollutants.

For the purposes of this article, we will primarily be looking at VOCs as outdoor air pollutants.

VOC Regulations At Federal Level

The U.S. EPA regulates VOCs at Federal level in 40 CFR 59, which is the National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standards For Consumer And Commercial Products. VOC controls for products are typically based on the application of products, such as:

  • Aerosol Coatings
  • Architectural Coatings
  • Automobile Refinish Coatings
  • Consumer Products

As the definitions of these products are regulation specific, it is important to know the product and how it is marketed in order to start reviewing the regulations for categories, VOC content thresholds, and legal requirements such as labelling, reporting, record keeping and exemptions.

Aerosol Coatings

Aerosol Coatings are covered in 40 CFR 59 Subpart E, which contains the responsibilities of defined parties, definitions, labelling requirements, record keeping, reporting requirements and category limits.

As defined in 40 CFR 59.503, an Aerosol Coating Product is “a pressurized coating product containing pigments or resins that is dispensed by means of a propellant and is packaged in a disposable can for hand-held application, or for use in specialized equipment for ground traffic/marking applications”.

The reactivity limit calculations for Aerosol Coating Products are in grams of ozone per gram of product (found in 40 CFR 59.505 and 59.506), and the Reactivity Limits by the actual Aerosol Coatings Category can be found in Table 1 of the Subpart.

Reactivity factors for certain chemical components are provided in Table 2A, 2B and 2C, and while there are low quality exemptions that may apply, record keeping and reporting is still required.

Architectural Coatings

Architectural Coatings are covered in 40 CFR 59 Subpart D, which contains definitions, labelling requirements, record keeping, reporting requirements, category limits and exceedance fees.

As defined in 40 CFR 59.401, an Architectural Coating is “a coating recommended for field application to stationary structures and their appurtenances, to portable buildings, to pavements, or to curbs.” This definition excludes adhesives and coatings recommended by the manufacturer or importer solely for shop applications, or solely for application to non-stationary structures, such as airplanes, ships, boats and railcars.

However, the Federal definition for Architectural Coatings is specific to 40 CFR 59, and is not necessarily consistent with State definitions, therefore it is important to check the appropriate local regulation(s) which apply to you, and to not just apply this Federal definition to all regulations regarding VOC emission standards for Architectural Coatings.

The VOC content for Architectural Coatings is calculated in grams of VOC per liter of coating (as per 40 CFR 59.406), and the VOC content limit by actual Architectural Coating category is found in Table 1 of the Subpart.

There are tonnage exemptions which may apply, but even in these cases record keeping and reporting is still required.

Automobile Refinish Coatings

Automobile Refinish Coatings are covered in 40 CFR 59 Subpart B, which contains responsibilities of defined parties, definitions, labelling requirements, record keeping and reporting requirements.

Defined in 40 CFR 59.101, an Automobile Refinish Coating Component means “any portion of a coating, such as a reducer or thinner, hardener, additive recommended (i.e. on a container or in the product literature by the manufacturer or importer) to distributors or end-users for automobile refinishing.” The raw materials used to produce the components that are mixed by the end user are not considered to be Automobile Refinish Coating Components.

It should be noted that to determine whether you are covered by the VOC Regulation, the definition requires you to look at ALL of the marketing literature surrounding the product, and not just what is on the container.

The VOC content for Automobile Refinish Coatings is calculated in grams of VOC per liter of coating (as per 40 CFR 59.104), and the actual coating limits by category are found in Table 1 of the Subpart.

Consumer Products

VOCs (1)Consumer Products are covered in 40 CFR 59 Subpart C, which contains responsibilities of defined parties, definitions, labelling requirements, record keeping and reporting requirements.

There are some specific chemicals and/or applications where exemptions apply, but this is regulation specific therefore it is important to check any other appropriate regulation(s) which may apply.

As defined in 40 CFR 59.202, a Consumer Product is “any household or institutional product (including paints, coatings, and solvents) or substance, or article (including any container or packaging) held by any person, where the use, consumption, storage, disposal, destruction, or decomposition of which may result in the release of VOC”.

For the purposes of this subpart, Consumer Product means ANY product listed in Tables 1 or 2, even if you wouldn’t normally consider them to be a consumer product.

The VOC content for Consumer Products  is calculated by weight percentage for most of its categories. The VOC content limits for Consumer Products by category are found in Table 1 of the Subpart, except for Antiperspirants and Deodorants, which are found in Table 2.

VOC Regulations Beyond the Federal Level

In addition to 40 CFR 59, there are also a number of State level regulations which may need to be considered.

While the Federal VOC Limits are designed to maintain nationwide air quality for environmental and human health reasons, the Clean Air Act requires States to maintain air quality. Some States have challenges meeting the required air quality, and must implement State Implementation Plans (SIPs) to address air pollution.

In order to address their air pollution issues, many of these States will regulate their VOC Limits to a stricter standard than that set by the Federal government. Emissions can be reduced by making process changes (such as switching to low VOC content coatings), or by installing air pollution control equipment (such as carbon adsorbers or incinerators).


State VOC regulations have to at least meet a level of stringency called Reasonably Available Control Technology – also known as RACT.

RACT is defined as the lowest level of emissions that can be achieved taking into account technical and economic considerations.

The EPA provides guidance on RACT in a series of documents called Control Technique Guidelines. When State VOC regulations are proposed, the EPA will review and comment on these proposals during the State’s public hearing process, to ensure that these rules meet RACT and will achieve the emission reductions projected.

Once the State has adopted the VOC Rule, the EPA approves the rule into the State’s SIP, and the VOC rule then becomes federally enforceable.

Recent and Upcoming Regulatory Changes

The last 12 months has seen a number of regulatory changes in relation to VOCs.

U.S. State level VOC limits have changed in Maryland as of January 1, 2018, and will change in Connecticut as of May 1, 2018. These changes include the lowering of some existing thresholds, and the addition of some categories that were already covered at the US EPA level but now the State is asking manufacturers to meet a lower level as they try to achieve their Clean Air Act air quality obligations.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, one of the jurisdictions in the State of California, updated their Rule 1168 on Sealants and Adhesives at the end of 2017. These changes include deferring responsibility for some consumer adhesives to the State level (i.e. the California Air Resources Board, also known as CARB), and adding reporting requirements for “big box retailers”.

Next Steps

UL’s global Regulatory Assurance Team includes a number of leading industry experts on VOC regulations, and can help you navigate the complex, ever changing regulatory landscape to understand and execute your compliance obligations. You can take a look at our full range of Advisory Services, and talk to an expert, here.

For other industry relevant information, including topical Regulatory News, White Papers and Webinars, visit our Resource Center.

Useful Information

40 CFR 59 (PDF)

The Clean Air Act

WEBINAR: VOC Changes in 2017


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