Indoor Air Pollution: VOCs
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are man-made or natural chemicals that are emitted as gases, and are one of the major components of indoor air pollution. Many VOCs have been found to cause a number of adverse health effects on humans, including headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, allergic skin reaction, loss of coordination, damage to vital organ functions including the kidneys, and liver and nervous system. Many organic chemicals are also known carcinogens, and have been shown to cause cancer in animals. VOCs are emitted from a number of household items in low levels, including paint and paint strippers, furniture finishes, building materials, cleaning supplies, fuels and even cosmetics.
In several studies conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are found to be up to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. After applying new paint to interior walls, the concentration of VOCs in the home may be more than 1,000 times higher inside the home than out. New buildings are the worst offenders, as new building materials can contain high amounts of VOCs. Paints and other similar materials can continue to emit VOCs from days to years after its application.
Most dangerous VOCs and where they are found:
- Found in paint strippers, aerosol spray cans and adhesive removers, methylene chloride have been found to cause cancer in animals.
- Benzene is a carcinogen, or cancer causing agent, that is found in tobacco smoke, paint supplies and automobile emissions.
- Perchloroethylene is a chemical used in dry-cleaning, and can remain on clothing for a long period of time, particularly if the clothing is brought home still damp.
- Many new building materials, including paint, ceiling tiles, wall boards and even new upholstered furniture slowly emit formaldehyde over time.
How to reduce exposure to VOCs:
- When using products that emit VOCs with the home, increase the building’s ventilation and provide fresh air.
- All potentially hazardous products have warnings on their labels, which include how to reduce exposure to any hazardous materials from the product.
VOCs can still leak from closed paint cans and other VOC-emitting products. The EPA recommends purchasing these products in amounts that are used quickly or in smaller quantities, and safely discarding or recycling products that will not be used.
If any products containing VOCs do need to be stored, they should be contained in their original containers with as tight a seal as possible, and in a well-ventilated area out of reach of children and pets. Once a product has been opened, it should never be stored inside the home, as VOCs will still escape over time.
Many companies now offer paints with low or no VOCs. Water-based latex paints are constantly being improved in performance and durability, and are low-emitting after application.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely rid the home of VOCs. However, by choosing products that are certified “green” or have contain no VOCs and properly ventilating the home, the indoor level can be reduced, which will greatly improve the home’s indoor air quality.