One of the other volunteers at the Saturday morning food cupboard handles marketing for environmentally friendly -- "green" -- products and services.
In the five years she's been in the job, her workload has increased so much that she's on the road for much of every week (she was heading for Portland, Ore., last Monday, and was looking for restaurant recommendations).
In between asking our mostly non-English-speaking clients which generic cereal they wanted in their grocery bags, we chatted about the growing green-building phenomenon and what is and isn't green.
The conversation wandered into products with no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In case you haven't a clue, volatile organic compounds are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids, according to the U.S. Department of Environmental Protections. They include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have adverse health effects -- short-term or long-term.
She said she understood the immediate benefits of using paint, especially the new Harmony line produced by Sherwin Williams, with no VOCs. According to a homeowner who requested that Harmony be used for every paintable surface in her house, she could stand in the middle of a room in which five professional painters were at work and that room would be completely free of odor.
Her question, which is always being asked about all new products, especially energy-efficient and "green" ones, was: Is there some long-term financial benefit in using low or no-VOCs paints and other products? If these products do cost more than the plain-vanilla, environmentally suspect ones, can the additional expense be recouped over a reasonable period of time.
I didn't know how to answer the question in hard financial terms. I can tell you, for example, that the time it takes to recoup the expense of properly insulating a new or existing house is about half of what it was just a few years ago, because more people are doing it. The more product being produced, the lower the production costs.
I think the question can be answered by looking at how chemicals used in the production of household products affect the health of the occupants of the house in which they are used. Simply put, if you are allergic to VOCs and contact with them makes you lose a day of work, or sends you to the hospital for a battery of tests, then it is obvious that not having to live with these chemicals will save everyone money.
Indoors, according to the EPA, the concentration of VOCs is higher than out-of-doors. How these chemicals affect people often can depend on the individual.
My wife and I are perfect examples of low and high tolerance to VOCs.
If I've painted a room, even using paint with low levels of volatile organic compounds, she cannot stay in that room for at least five days, even with the windows open and cross-ventilation.
The same is true for wood stain on bookcases -- even if the staining was done in the workshop and the pieces were kept out of doors until I could no longer detect any odor.
When we were getting one of our houses ready for sale six years ago, we hired a quickie painter recommended by our real estate agent. With lightning speed, he painted our hallways in a few hours on a warm and humid Saturday morning.
With speed comes spills, however, and there were several drips and droplets on the oak floors and stairs in the hallways. While I was occupied with other jobs, she decided to use a latex paint remover to clean the spots off the floor. In about 15 minutes, she put the can down and collapsed on the living room sofa, feeling ill and having trouble catching her breath.
It almost resulted in a hospital visit, but you can bet your last dollar that paint remover was disposed of during a municipal hazardous waste collection day.
VOCs are everywhere. We renovated the kitchen in the old house. The cabinets arrived before I was ready for them (it's always good to have materials on hand before they are needed to remain on schedule), so I left them in the boxes and stored them in the dining room and foyer.
My wife was allergic to VOCs in the glue used to assemble the boxes, so I had to store them in the basement.
We just bought a new car carrier for the dog. The carrier is made of plastic. On the first long trip with the carrier in the car, my wife and younger son developed sore throats (I didn't) and began showing symptoms of colds. Once they were out of the car, they felt better.
I have to admit, when I put my nose up against the carrier and took a whiff, I could see where they might have had some reaction.
Is there any financial benefit to using low VOC products? I'm sure a long-term study might prove that there is.
But from my own experience, the health benefits of having no VOCs around are easily apparent.