What Are VOCs and How to Eliminate Them?
You probably already know that conventional chemicals are often hazardous to your health so you do your best to avoid them. But, what about the unseen toxins in the air of your home? There are more dangers than you may think. In this article we’ll tell you what are VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and how to eliminate them from your household to improve the quality of the air you and your family breathe.
What Are VOCs?
VOCs are the airborne toxic chemicals emitted from items in your home. They are a wide variety of off gassed chemicals with one thing in common. They are toxic. The concentration of the VOCs is often worse indoors than outdoors. This may come as a surprise because outdoor air quality is worsened by pollution, but indoor air pollution is becoming increasingly more concentrated with chemicals. VOCs are gases, but they can be released from solids or liquids as well. These are some chemicals that are notorious, off gassed VOCs in the home:
- Naphthalene (for example, in air freshener)
- Acetone (for example, in cosmetics)
- Benzene (for example, in paint)
- Tetrachloroethene (for example, in cleaning products)
- Formaldehyde (for example, in carpets)
The VOCs themselves are dangerous, but they can also mix with other gases in the air to form “new” particles of air pollution.
What Are the Sources of VOCs at Home?
Now that you know they’re there, I’m sure you want to know where they are! There are so many sources in our homes today, but to whittle them down, these are some of the most common sources:
- Cleaning products: The average household cleaner is a concoction of harmless cleaning solutions and harmful toxins. And if the fumes of two or more cleaners mix in the air, you could be breathing an even more dangerous combination.
- Synthetic fragrances: You’ll find synthetic fragrances in things like cleaning products, dryer sheets, perfumes, body care products, etc.
- Air freshener: Although this technically is a synthetic fragrance, it’s a problem all on its own. The average air freshener releases over 20 different known toxins with each spray. Not just synthetic fragrances.
- Wall paint: Not surprisingly, conventional paints usually have benzene, methylene chloride, and formaldehyde.
- Carpets: The synthetic materials of the fibers of the carpeting may be treated with flame retardants or harmful dyes. The backing of your rug and carpet might be full of toxic adhesives and flame retardants as well. Not to mention, carpets can be a hotspot for VOCs to settle and be stuck in. This means your carpet and rug could be a collection point for a variety of chemicals that off gas in your home.
- Smoke and fumes: This could be coming from a wood stove or fireplace, a gas stove, or second-hand smoke from tobacco. You need to maintain the stoves and fireplaces to ensure they don’t leak more fumes and smoke than necessary. There will be some leakage that is unavoidable. But, you can avoid having tobacco smoke in the home altogether if you choose to do so.
- Office supplies: Just think of the glues, the fumes from copy paper and printing ink, and of course, the markers. Permanent markers, whiteboard markers, and white-out correction markers all make use of harmful toxins to get the job done.
- Pesticides: This is an obvious source of chemicals, but it isn’t just a threat outdoors. The food you eat could be coated in pesticides. The indoor plants you buy may have been sprayed before you purchased them. The natural fiber rugs, curtains, bedding you have might also be a source of pesticides unless you bought certified organic material. Unless your material is organic, even natural fibers can be sprayed with pesticides.
These sources of VOC may surprise you:
- Electronics: Computers, TV’s, and other electronics are usually treated with flame retardants. This may be useful, but it means the items are also going to continue to off gas in your home long after you bring them home.
- Furniture: The level of VOCs emitted from your furniture depends mainly on what type of wood or other material it’s made of. Solid wood furniture is the best because it doesn’t use urea-formaldehyde adhesives like particle-board furniture does. But, your solid wood furniture may be treated with a toxic wood polish or preservative rendering it a source of VOCs for months or years afterwards. Wood stains in decorative items or furniture can also be a source of off gassing VOCs.
- Hobby and craft supplies: With some hobbies, you will use glues and paints. The typical craft materials are also laden with toxins. Unfortunately, this means your kid’s art box may be a likely source of VOCs.
- Cookware: Teflon is known to contain some VOCs. Every time you use the non-stick cookware, you may be releasing more fumes into your home. If your pan gets scratched, the Teflon could chip into your food too. Thus, you’ll not only inhale the chemicals but ingest them too.
- Cosmetics and body care products: The average woman who wears makeup all day may be absorbing up to 40 different chemicals. Then think of the lotions, hair care, and shower products you are absorbing through your skin every day. You are directly affected by the ingredients in those products. Ingredients like parabens, phthalates, neurotoxins, and carcinogens.
How Do VOCs Affect Your Health?
The effects of exposure to VOCs depends on a few factors:
- Your level of exposure: If you were not constantly surrounded by fumes and major sources of VOCs, you will have less exposure than someone who was a hobby painter, or spent a lot of time cleaning with harmful chemicals.
- The length of time you were exposed: The longer you were exposed to a chemical, the more you inhaled it or absorbed it through your skin. The more you inhaled it and touched it, the more time it had to irritate your body and even get into your bloodstream.
- How you were exposed to it: Sometimes you ingest it from your hands going to your mouth without washing them, you may inhale it from impure air, you might absorb toxins through your skin (think of dust, body care products, etc). You can absorb up to 60% of the products you put on your skin.
VOCs themselves also differ in their potency. There is definitely a ranking order when it comes to the severity of the effects. These are some of the common problems caused by VOC exposure:
- Eye, nose, and throat irritation
- Allergic skin reactions
- Aggravated allergies
- Asthma attacks
These are some of the more severe effects that exposure to VOCs are linked to:
- Damage to your liver
- Kidney damage
- Central nervous system disruption
How to Reduce Your Exposure to VOCs at Home?
You basically have two choices. You can either eliminate the sources of the VOCs, or reduce your exposure. Because it’s impossible to escape VOCs entirely, sometimes you will just need to be cautious and do your best to reduce your exposure. We’ll talk about that later.
There are ways to eliminate the source though. Here’s some ideas:
- Get rid of your conventional cleaning products: There are fantastic, natural alternatives to cleaning products that are effective and non-toxic. Just be sure to get a reputable, certified brand of cleaning products. You cannot always trust the “green labels” because some regulatory bodies do not require the full ingredients list to be stated when it comes to cleaning products.
- Switch your laundry products: You will find many toxins in your laundry detergent and dryer sheets. The best way to eliminate that source is to switch to using natural products. There are many great non-toxic brands of laundry detergent to choose from. As far as switching from dryer sheets goes, you can try out organic wool dryer balls instead. They work so well. If you want to find out more about them and how to use them, read here.
- Paints: If you’re going to be painting your home, choose no-VOC paint instead of conventional paints. This applies to craft paint as well. You can remove that source, by making sure you use a “clean” paint.
- Storage: If you have excess conventional paints, cleaning products, or fuel, store them far away from your living space. This will eliminate the VOCs from your environment.
You cannot always remove the source of VOCs so here’s some ways to reduce your exposure:
- Never mix chemicals: The packages will usually indicate the correct mixtures if any are necessary, but if you’re using cleaning products, try not to mix them at all. This applies to physically mixing the liquids, but also mixing them in the air. Try to use only one at a time and let the area air out first before you introduce different chemical fumes.
- Increase ventilation: Open your windows and doors to allow a breeze and fresh air in your home. Do this especially when you’re using a source of VOCs like paint, cleaning products, or craft supplies. But in general, it’s good to circulate the indoor air.
- Use an air purifier: The best kind of air purifier will have a HEPA filter to remove the most toxins. The air purifier is ideal, especially if you live in a place with poor outdoor air quality where ventilation would create more problems!
- Wear a mask: If you are dealing with fumes or dust, wear a mask and other necessary protective gear. Goggles, gloves, and a mask will reduce your exposure and the irritation that VOCs can cause.
If you want to eliminate VOCs from your household, start by simple lifestyle changes such as buying natural cleaning products and ventilating your house as often as you can. To further reduce your VOC exposure, consider buying an air purifier and investing in an organic mattress and non toxic furniture made from solid wood. Next time you paint your wall, go for a zero-VOC paint. You can also monitor the levels of VOCs by using an air quality monitor, which can further help you identify VOC sources at home.