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VOC - Volatile Organic Compound

VOC's are in your home and can affect your health, but you may not even be aware of them. Learning to identify and avoid these hidden dangers is a step in the right direction toward having a healthier home.
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VOC's - What Are They?
VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound, gases emitted from certain naturally occurring or man-made solids or liquids. You are probably familiar with the term, "off-gassing". VOC's are the fumes being emitted, off-gassed, from substances found in every home. Some VOC's have an odor so you know they are there like paint or gasoline. Some of these odors are so common, they are just accepted like carpet or dry cleaning. Other VOC's are undetectable so it is good to be aware of what they are.

20+ common household sources of VOC's are:

  1. Household cleaners (bathroom/kitchen cleansers, window cleaners, furniture polish, laundry detergents)
  2. Personal care products (hair spray, nail polish & remover, cologne, lotion)
  3. Engineered wood products (plywood, particleboard, and medium-density fiberboard)
  4. Countertops
  5. Cabinets
  6. Air fresheners
  7. Toys
  8. Food containers
  9. Mattresses
  10. Carpet
  11. Furniture
  12. Home office machines (copiers, printers, computer monitors)
  13. Flooring (vinyl, glues, finishes, adhesives)
  14. Stains and varnishes
  15. Paint
  16. Paint stripper
  17. Dry-cleaned clothing, bedding, drapes
  18. Moth & insect repellents or killers
  19. Fuels (vehicle start up, stored oils or gasoline)
  20. Packing peanuts, styrofoam cups, plates and packing trays
  21. Aerosol sprays
  22. Household products (wallpaper, cardboard and paper products)
  23. Smoke (tobacco smoke and smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves)

All of these products emit VOC's while being used, and some of them emit some degree of hazardous gases even while in storage.

As you read this list, you may be thinking that you would have to live in a tent in the woods to avoid all these products. In reality, you just have to do the best you can to make substitutions for some of these products when it is reasonable and to reduce your use as much as possible.

Why VOC's Are Dangerous
VOC's are adversely affecting your indoor air quality. It is impossible to say how much is too much, but the more chemicals, the higher the concentration, and the longer the exposure, the more harmful the VOC's. By having excessive VOC's in your home, you could be contributing to nose, eye, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Signs of overexposure to VOC's are: eye irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, fatigue, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment.


HH-HT-readlabels-0112How To Identify & Avoid VOC's

Reading labels on common household products for cleaning and personal care is a good place to start to be aware of what VOC's are coming into your home disguised as harmless everyday products. The EPA uses signal words on labels as a guide to how harmful or dangerous products are:

  • Danger is the strongest alert and indicates the product could cause serious harm or even death and is used on products that could explode when heated.
  • Warning means a product can cause illness or injury and can easily catch on fire.
  • Caution is used on products that can cause skin or eye irritation and have harmful fumes.

A good resource to learn about the danger level of chemicals found in household products is the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Household Products Database where you can do a Quick Search for a product or a chemical. Avoid products containing the following chemicals when possible, and when it is necessary to use them, be sure to follow manufacturer's directions regarding use and ventilation.

  • Acetone is often found in products such as nail polish, nail polish remover, colognes, perfumes, rubbing alcohol, and hair spray.
  • The main indoor sources of benzene are tobacco smoke, stored fuels and paint supplies, and automobile emissions in attached garages, aerosol or liquid insect pest products, mineral spirits, and furniture polishes.
  • Ethylene glycol can be found in auto products such as wax and antifreeze, wood finishes, concrete paints and stains, interior paints, and commercial adhesives used in the home.
  • Formaldehyde is often used in the manufacture of upholstered furniture, carpets, plywood, pressed wood products such as some cabinets.
  • Methylene chloride and toluene can appear in paint stripper, adhesive (glue) removers, degreasers, aerosol penetrating oils, brake cleaner, carburetor cleaner, commercial solvents, electronics cleaners, and spray lubricants.
  • Perchloroethylene is used in the drycleaning process and is emitted from clothing as it is stored or worn.
  • Styrene is used to make plastics, fiberglass, rubber, and latex. It is found in plastic products like cups, plates, trays, packaging, and packing peanuts. Polystyrene products have a #6 recycling symbol on them.

How To Reduce Unavoidable Off-Gassing
There is no way to tell if your home has dangerous levels of VOC's. Some can be smelled, but others are odorless. So it just seems smart to reduce exposure to volatile organic compounds whenever possible. Here are some tips:

  • Choose household cleaners and personal care products with the shortest list of chemicals in the ingredients, and avoid added fragrances.
  • Allow packaged products that off-gas to air out before use.
  • Many offending chemicals, such as formaldehyde, off-gas at higher rates when humidity and temperature are higher. Keep the humidity below 45 percent to decrease the amount of formaldehyde and other chemicals that will off-gas. You can monitor the humidity level with a humidity monitor. If humidity is over 45 percent, a dehumidifier to pull moisture from the air may be needed.
  • Use products containing VOC's in well-ventilated areas.
  • Follow or exceed package precautions.
  • Do not store open containers of products containing VOC's in your home, including the basement or attached garage.
  • Buy in quantities that you will use in a short time to avoid storage.

In Summary
You have learned that VOC's can be detrimental to your health, but there are ways to eliminate or moderate these hidden dangers in your home. Now you know the most common sources of off-gassing, how to read labels for the worst offenders, and simple tips to follow to help you reduce VOC's and make your home and your family healthier. Just remember that being healthier is an ongoing process so take one step at a time.

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