Low-VOC and zero-VOC building materials were developed in response to public demand for more healthy interior finishing options. VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. These substances are emitted in gas form by a host of modern building materials and conveniences, including plywood, paints, finished, MDF (medium density fiberboard) and some electronics.
VOCs are not an acute threat to human health, which is why they have become so commonly used. Their effect is subtle and occurs over a long period of time. Health professionals are most concerned about interior applications because VOCs accumulate in confined spaces. The effects of prolonged VOC exposure can range from a runny nose to central nervous system damage, and are widely divergent between individuals. People with high sensitivity to chemicals and VOCs create a market demand for products such as low-VOC plywood.
Although for ease of reference people refer to "low-VOC plywood," it isn't the wood that has the VOCs in it, but the adhesives that hold it together. Plywood, as its name implies, is made up of multiple layers, or plies, of wood. Successive layers have their grains oriented in alternating directions, which is what gives plywood its strength. These plies are held together with various adhesives, many of which have traditionally contained formaldehyde, VOCs and other substances that are not beneficial to a healthy indoor environment.
The quality and practicality of various types of soy-based adhesives has advanced to the point where they can be used to produce healthy plywood at a competitive price. These advances in the healthiness of the adhesives is often combined with wood that has been sourced from sustainable sources. These progressive materials are often found being used in LEED buildings. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an innovative architectural rating system that rewards sustainable, healthy and low-impact buildings with varying levels of LEED certification (silver, gold and platinum).
Low-VOC plywood can be used in buildings, furniture, cabinetry and millwork. It is particularly desired by parents who are concerned about their children's health, as growing bodies and brains are more susceptible to the health effects of VOCs and other toxins. Because of this potential market, low-VOC and zero-VOC plywoods may see their most dramatic growth in applications such as cribs, children's toys and schools.