If you’ve ever installed new carpet, repainted your bedroom, or purchased new furniture, then you have most likely – and unwittingly – introduced VOCs into your indoor environment. So what’s a VOC? It stands for volatile organic compound, and the EPA defines it as gases emitted from certain solids or liquids, such as paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, furnishings, adhesives, permanent markers and more.
VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short and long term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. With homes built more efficiently than ever nowadays –designed especially to maximize the effectiveness of heating and cooling systems – VOCs are less likely to slip out through a poorly-insulated attic or drafty window. This means they stay trapped longer in your home, thus increasing your exposure.
VOCs can be emitted by a variety of things, including:
Bob Vila – the defacto king of home repair – knows a thing or two about VOCs and how insidious they can be for homeowners. On his eponymous website, ne notes that, “As these chemicals [VOCs] break down, they release gas into the air that can cause headaches, sore throats, and more. Minimize the effects of off-gassing by ventilating a newly furnished room for at least a week after installation and always buying no- or low-VOC products when possible.”
While most people can smell high levels of some VOCs, other VOCs have no odor — and odor is not indicative of the level of risk from inhalation. The Minnesota Department of Health states that thousands of different VOCs produced and used in our daily lives, including acetone, benzene, ethylene glycol and formaldehyde.
If you or someone in your family is already prone to skin sensitivities, allergies or asthma, or are currently in poor or compromised health, VOCs can exacerbate their symptoms.
According to the EPA’s website, other symptoms associated with VOC exposure are:
- allergic skin reaction
- dyspnea (labored breathing/shortness of breath)
- emesis (vomiting)
- epistaxis (nosebleeds)
So if you’re concerned about VOC levels in your home and want to minimize your exposure as much as possible, what are some steps you can take?
- Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs
- Don’t store opened containers of unused paints or similar materials within your home
- Use alternative pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides
- Use household products according to manufacturer’s directions, and make sure you provide plenty of fresh air while using these products
- Throw away unused or little-used containers safely; buy in quantities that you will use soon
- Keep out of reach of children and pets
- Never mix household care products unless directed on the label
- Use low VOC products whenever possible
- Invest in a high quality air purifier that can remove VOCs from the air