Zeroing in on Language, Part 1, Zero Content

You will often see advertising promising “Zero VOC content” and “E0 formaldehyde” or similar language. That “zero” looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it’s not really accurate. I’m going to try to break it down, but this gets tricky since a lot of these statements could be technically accurate but completely meaningless….

First, as previously discussed, there’s nothing in this world that is actually VOC free. Everything, even stones, eventually emits something. It’s might be pretty insignificant amounts, but it’s not a zero. But it is common to have something that is very insignificant or negligible marked as zero, a rounding down as it were. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the labeling of foods as “fat free” or “sugar free” or “calorie free” when in fact, the products aren’t truly “free” of either fat, sugar or calories. So talking about “zero emissions” from a stone is probably fair enough, if not absolutely, technically accurate. (Of course I’m guessing most wood, just because it’s a natural product, will emit more than a stone.)

So let’s set aside for the moment the idea that anything and everything emits and look at the specific statement of “Zero VOC Content.” That’s a fun one. See, like the FDA will allow you to label a food as “sugar free” when there are trace amounts of sugar in it, there are also industry standards that allow you to call a finish or a glue “VOC free” when there are only trace amounts of certain VOC’s emitting from that active chemical product. Notice that part about the product being ACTIVE. I’m talking about the glue or the finish before it’s been cured. It’s basically a CONTENT requirement, not a final emissions standard.

So if you have a job site adhesive that states it has zero VOC content, it could be both correct and meaningful under the labeling laws. However a product advertising a factory finish with zero VOC content is walking a fine misleading line…

Remember when we discussed that I consider the list of chemicals in a floor finish being like a recipe for cookie dough—the fact that you have raw eggs in the batter doesn’t mean you have raw eggs after you bake the cookie. Saying that the chemicals you applied wet in the factory had “zero” VOC content doesn’t mean that the same thing after the product is produced. What you really have here is a content claim for the raw product that looks like an emissions claim for the finished goods. It’s technically true, but it’s not meaningful.

Again, I see this as selling fear. It’s making a technically true claim that means nothing and is actually misleading regarding the final product’s condition. Using the term “Zero” sounds really good, but really? It has zero meaning.

Next week we’ll go after E0.

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