VOCS: A Guide to Volatile Organic Compounds
So what are VOCs?
The term volatile organic compounds (VOCs) refers to a range of substances that evaporate at room temperature. It’s the same as steam coming off of a pot of boiling water, except that VOCs don’t need to be heated. Instead, liquids like paints, cleaning supplies, glues, and pesticides and construction materials like insulation and pressed wood release gases when they’re just sitting around your home. While this causes little trouble in outdoor settings, VOCs can build to dangerous levels inside. The EPA found VOC concentrations were generally 2 to 5 times higher indoors than out, and activities like painting or using solvents can raise the concentration as high as 1,000 times outdoor levels.
Are they really that bad?
The health effects of VOC exposure vary widely depending on the type of chemical and degree of exposure. Long-term contact can pose a serious health risk – many VOCs are known to cause cancer and can affect your immune system, kidneys, and other organs. Immediate symptoms of VOC exposure can include respiratory problems, nausea, headaches, fatigue, and dizziness.
What are common VOCs I should look for?
There are hundreds of VOCs out there, and not all of them are dangerous. There a couple, though, that you should keep an eye out for. Well-known dangerous VOCs include:
Dichloromethane (DCM, aka methylene chloride): DCM is used in solvents, paint strippers, and aerosol sprays as well as in industrial applications. It has been linked to cancer in laboratory tests and is converted to carbon monoxide in the body, which can lead to symptoms similar to those of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is one of the most-researched VOCs. It is a known carcinogen and can trigger asthma and other respiratory symptoms. Most household formaldehyde is released by pressed wood products like particleboard, cabinets, and flooring, although it can also come from smoking and using gas or kerosene stoves.
Benzene: Benzene is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels and can also be found in cigarette smoke. Short-term exposure can lead to drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, and respiratory symptoms while long-term exposure is linked to blood disorders and several cancers.
Perchloroethylene (aka perc): Perchloroethylene is a chemical commonly used for dry-cleaning that can remain on clothes even after they’ve been taken home. Short-term effects can include respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, and kidney dysfunction. It is especially dangerous to those working in the dry-cleaning industry who are more likely to suffer reproductive problems and cancer due to long-term exposure.
How do I avoid VOCs?
There are a number of easy steps you can take to reduce your exposer to VOCs:
• Keep dangerous products out of your home. This includes paint thinner, aerosol sprays, pesticides, cleaning products, and pressed wood products. Look instead for eco-friendly alternatives like green cleansers, VOC-free paint, and construction materials made without formaldehyde.
• When you do need to use these products, make sure you have adequate ventilation by opening the windows and using fans to circulate the air or by taking them outside.
• Never store volatile chemicals in your home. Even with the lid on, a can of paint or solvent can still leak VOCs.
• Find a green dry cleaning service that uses perc-free methods like CO2 or “wet cleaning.” Avoid plastic bags from dry cleaners and bring your own reusable dry cleaning bag.