Even if you've never heard the phrase "volatile organic compounds" before, you're probably aware of the concept if you've ever opened a window to air out a space where someone was painting a wall or using cleaning products with a powerful smell. Both liquids and solids can emit VOCs, which are a type of gas. They do not always have a smell, and they exist in a much higher concentration indoors compared to outdoors.
What Are VOCs?
The gases that are emitted by many common household items are indoor air pollutants that can lead to a number of health problems.
You may be using products that emit these gases if you use perfume, have carpet in your home or make photocopies. If you cook, wear makeup or loving having a cozy wood fire burning when it's cold, you are increasing the concentration of these gases in your home environment.
It is not practical in most cases to eliminate the use of products that emit these gases entirely, so the better approach is to reduce their use and make sure that you take steps to preserve the quality of your indoor air, such as making sure there is good ventilation throughout your home.
If you use the question "what are VOCs" in an online search, you will probably get a lot of results about the health problems that they can cause.
In the short term, if you have asthma, you may find your symptoms worsen. Respiratory irritation, dizziness and nausea along with headaches are other short-term symptoms of exposure.
While these can be irritating and affect your quality of life if they are recurring, long-term VOCS health effects are serious and may include damage to your liver, kidneys or central nervous system. They can also lead to cancer.
There is no federal standard of safe exposure levels, so you should try to minimize your exposure as much as possible. How you approach reducing your exposure will vary according to the products you tend to use most often.
Common Household Products
If you've ever picked up a can of bug spray and noticed that the directions said something like "Use in a well-ventilated area," it is because these can be volatile organic compounds sources. This is also the case for common cleaning products, such as bleach, along with paint and paint thinner.
Preserving your indoor air quality does not mean you have to spend the rest of your life looking at unpainted walls or avoiding bleach. Some items come in low-VOC formulations. You should also make to follow the directions for use, particularly the ones about ventilation.
If you have any containers that contain old chemicals that you no longer need, getting rid of them can be a big help in improving the quality of the air in your home. However, you should not throw them away. Your state, city or county may have regulations about how these types of materials should be disposed of, and if they do not, you should research how to safely discard them in your area.
Common Personal Products
You might be surprised to learn that your cosmetics, your deodorant and even the chemicals used by dry cleaners on your clothes can be volatile organic compounds sources.
You can help reduce VOCs health effects by cutting back on your use of scented products, such as candles, and by purchasing low-VOC products when you have an option.
Dry cleaners should remove most of the chemicals they use in cleaning as part of their process. However, if your clothes come back to you with a strong chemical smell, you may want to switch dry cleaners because their removal of perchloroethylene, which can be cancerous in animals, might not be adequate.
Building Products and Home Furnishings
If you have a home painting project to do, it's a good idea to only buy as much paint and solvents as you need to complete it. They should be stored, tightly-lidded, in a well-ventilated area that is ideally away from your living space. You can also purchase low-VOC paints.
The amount of VOCs that a product gives off gets lower over time, so if your furniture is second-hand, your indoor air quality will be much less affected. Storing furniture elsewhere for a while before bringing it home can also mean lower exposure.
New carpets may pose some danger. You should try to keep the home thoroughly ventilated during and for several days after installation so that volatile organic compounds do not linger in the air after release. Running a fan can help with this, particularly if you can set one in the window to pull air out. Cross-ventilation is one of the best ways to keep air circulating in your home.
If you need to do any renovations, ideally, you should try to do it at a time when you stay out of the house altogether. If this is not possible, you may want to try to do it during warmer months when you are able to keep the house ventilated.
However, you should also be aware that higher humidity and temperatures may worsen the problem. Climate control is another part of the puzzle when it comes to maintaining your indoor air quality.
Keeping Your Air Safe
An HVAC system that is clean and that runs efficiently is another important element in making sure your home has as much ventilation and fresh air as possible.
Unfortunately, while traditional air filters can help with many air quality issues, they are not effective when it comes to volatile organic compounds sources. These types of filters collect particles, not gases. Instead, you need activated carbon air filters, which can help absorb some of the hazardous compounds.
One of the tricky things about reducing the level of VOCs in your home is that they do not always come from sources that you would normally identify as toxic. While you might assume that breathing in cigarette smoke, paint or strong household cleaners is bad for you, people often do not know that a new sofa or carpet they have just purchased could affect how pure their indoor air is. Volatile organic compounds can be odorless and difficult to detect.
The best way to make sure you have low levels in your home is to be a smart consumer. Read up on low-VOC products, and try to use products that have high levels minimally. When it comes to some substances, such as cleaning products and pesticides, there may be no-VOC options that you can make at home that are just as or even more effective than their chemical-laden counterparts.
Everyone wants their home to be safe, and nowhere is this more important than when it comes to the very air they breathe. While it is not possible to create an indoor environment at home that is completely free of pollution, there are many solutions available for mitigating low-quality air that can lead to substantial improvements.