No, Waterlox is by no means a low-VOC product.
Waterlox contains the legal maximum amount of VOCs for a varnish.In fact, Waterlox manufactures its products in several versions, depending on the legal VOC limit in the consumer's state.
The legal limit
The national limits for varnishes are at 450 g/L (grams per liter); many states have them set at 350 g/L, and California's limit is 275 g/L.
This means that manufacturers cannot legally sell products containing VOCs that exceed these levels, which is quite a different issue from whether they can call themselves "low-VOC."
- These are high levels of volatile organic compounds to be emitted in your house, no matter which version of Waterlox you are considering.
- The VOC levels in Waterlox are also significantly more than the amount found even in most conventional (i.e., regular-VOC) paint. (Federal law requires that flat paints contain no more than 250 g/L and that other paints contain no more than 380 g/L.)
EPA's limits on VOCs are intended to prevent outdoor smog only
Also, keep in mind that the EPA limits are based on considerations of outdoor air pollution, rather than indoor air quality. Therefore, the EPA's limits do not necessarily amount to a finding that such VOC levels are healthy.
As to whether there are other toxins that would offgas over time, this question cannot be answered with certainty, as Waterlox does not disclose all of its ingredients (the MSDS sheet only shows about 76%-85% of ingredients, depending on the product). The potential ways of coming into contact with the remaining ingredients are either through slow offgassing, fire, or when it is time to sand the finish down in preparation for a new finish.
I recommend hardwax oils
In my opinion, hardwax oils are the most environmentally sound and safest hardwood floor finishes. Hardwax oils can be made without VOCs, but most of the products on the market do have some VOCs in them, although typically much lower than the numbers we have discussed above.
A surface treated with hardwax oils can easily be maintained by adding a small amount of carnauba wax emulsion to the cleaning water. If spot repairs have to be done, it's easy, as you can just add some more hardwax oil and it will blend in.
Luckily, the selection is getting better this year. You could consider:
(Full disclosure: I am a co-owner of Unearthed Paints.)
For more information:
Read our "Clear Finish Buyer's Guide" for pros, cons, and other comparisons of clear finish materials.
Also, check our backgrounder "Selecting Healthy and Environmentally Sound Clear Wood Finishes" for complete details on clear finish offerings.