Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are fumes released into the air (AKA off-gassing) by thousands of everyday products like paint, cleaning supplies, building materials, furniture and even cosmetics. Many of these can be harmful to human health, especially when they accumulate in a closed space, like your house or office.
“When you consider all of the materials that go into building out an interior space, the opportunity for a truly toxic soup exists if every material is off-gassing something harmful,” says Karen Righthand, vice president of corporate sales at SCS Global Services, which monitors third-party environmental certifications.
Some of these invisible gasses carry strong smells, while others are odorless. Short and long-term exposures can cause an array of symptoms — eye, skin and throat irritation; headaches and nausea; even cancer and liver, kidney and nervous system damage.
Researchers from Harvard and Syracuse Universities produced a study that showed people working in a low-VOC building scored 61 percent higher on cognitive function tests than they did in a building with typical air quality.
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When Did VOCs Become A Problem?
VOCs have been around for a long time, though it’s only been in the last couple of decades that science discovered the extent of their dangers. Yet our exposure to them continues to grow.
“For one, we now spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors,” says Oyvind Birkenes, CEO of Airthings air quality monitors. “Also, over the last couple of decades, scented products like candles, room sprays, and even garbage bags have become extremely popular, especially in Westernized countries like the U.S., which has contributed to the prevalence of VOCs.”
While the EPA has banned extremely toxic chemicals like methylene chloride, it lacks the authority to regulate VOCs in indoor products that can off-gas for hours, months or years. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize your exposure to VOCs.
What Common Household Things Can Off-Gas VOCs?
Just about any interior finish that is not glass, metal, ceramic, concrete or stone can off-gas, but there are often alternative products available with a low or no-VOC content. When buying building materials, look for certifications like SCS Indoor Advantage Gold, FloorScore and Green Seal and Greenguard.
“VOC off-gassing is highest during and immediately after application, but paints can continue to off-gas for longer periods,” says Nina Hwang, lead environmental scientist at Green Seal, a nonprofit that certifies eco-labeling.
To minimize dangers, buy certified low or no-VOC paint and keep the work area well-ventilated until the paint dries. Solvent-based paints contain higher VOCs than water-based coatings.
Because of the large surface area, its vital to use certified low and no-VOC materials in your flooring. “Fortunately, there is a large majority of flooring that has been tested and certified,” says Righthand. She recommends this database with 9,500 flooring products certified for FloorScore.
While VOC emissions with vinyl flooring are highest immediately after installation, lower levels of VOCs may continue to off-gas for years, Hwang says. Also, use a low or no-VOC adhesive when possible.
Rugs and carpets
Most VOCs from carpets come from the backing and the adhesive to glue it in place, says Docia Boylen, owner of Handyman Connection of Golden, Colorado. “The backing can also be treated with an antimicrobial agent that can increase VOC pollution,” she says.
For low VOCs, look for a Green Label or Green Label Plus certification for carpets and adhesives, and air out the space for at least 72 hours after installation. “A woolen carpet with a natural-fiber backing is also a great choice, since wool is naturally flame and stain resistant,” says Boylen.
Building insulation is usually made from fiberglass, polyurethane or polystyrene, then treated with fire-retardant chemicals. “These products can leak VOCs into your air, especially during excessive heat,” says Boylen. She recommends a formaldehyde-free brand. Or choose mineral wool insulation or sprayed foam products.
Composite wood products contain resins and adhesives that can include formaldehyde and other VOCs. So can foam found in mattresses, cushions and padding.
“Like other products, VOC emissions are highest when the products are new and slowly drop off over time,”‘ Hwang says. “However, off-gassing may continue for years.”
Look for furniture that has been VOC tested by the California Department of Public Health or certified by SCS Indoor Advantage or GreenGuard. “Or buy secondhand furniture that has had more time to off-gas,” says Hwang.
For many, cleaning products offer especially high-VOC exposure. Choose fragrance-free products or those certified by a reputable eco-label like Green Seal or Safer Choice.
A few others to watch out for include dry-cleaned clothing, hair spray, perfume, hobby supplies (think adhesives), aerosol sprays and pest repellents.
“Despite their hazards, many manufacturers still use VOCs because of their desired properties in products,” Hwang says. “Many fragrances and plug-in air fresheners even intentionally contain VOCs that off-gas at a certain rate so that the desired scent lingers in the air.”
How can I limit harmful VOCs in my home?
“The good news is that dealing with high VOC levels is quite straightforward and achievable for most people,” says Birkenes.
- Ventilate. “Open your windows regularly to infuse fresh air into your living room,” says Birkenes. And remember that Harvard/Syracuse study? Adding ventilation raised cognitive scores 101 percent.
- Regularly replace air filters in indoor fan and HVAC systems, and create alerts to remind you to change them.
- Run a hood fan or open a window while cooking indoors, and keep the door closed when grilling outdoors.
- Choose products certified low or no-VOC, and building materials like stone and tile that are naturally safer.
- Don’t store products or buy in bulk. Only buy what you need, since VOCs can leak from containers like old paint cans and bleach bottles. If you must store them, put them in a garage or shed separate from the house.
- Read and follow the guidelines on product labels.
- If you can’t open windows, use air purifiers with active carbon and HEPA filters.
- Stop using air fresheners. “They have been targeted as a key source of VOC in your home,” says Boylen.
- Air dry your clothes after picking them up from the dry cleaners.
- Get a smart home air quality monitor that tracks VOCs and can alert you if your levels cross certain thresholds. Of course, Birkenes recommends the Airthings View Plus. “It can also provide insight into the exact times when your VOCs may be highest,” he says, “which can provide some context clues for what may be contributing to the problem based on your activity or where the device is located.”
Lastly, use common sense. “Listen to your nose,” says Birkenes. “When something smells, it is more than likely emitting VOCs!
“These chemicals are unfortunately all around us and part of everyday life, but with education, monitoring, and proactive intervention, they can be mitigated successfully.”
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