You Know Your ABCs, But Do You Know Your VOCs?

Morgan Polson
June 8, 2023
min read
Picture of a woman spraying an aerosol can of hair spray towards her face

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard OF them, but may not know much about them. I was in the same boat for many years… but never fear! I’m here to clear the air (pun fully intended).

  1. What are VOCs?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a group of chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature, releasing gases into the air we breathe. They are emitted from a wide range of products, including paints, varnishes, cleaning supplies, adhesives, carpets, and even some furniture. VOCs can also be produced by combustion processes, such as cooking and smoking.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can have negative impacts on both human health and the environment. The potential harm depends on the specific VOCs, their concentration levels, and the duration and frequency of exposure.

Some VOCs are known to have short-term health effects, such as eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Prolonged exposure or exposure to high levels of certain VOCs can lead to more serious health issues, including damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system. Additionally, some VOCs have been associated with respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and an increased risk of cancer.  

Moreover, VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and particulate matter, which are key components of air pollution. These pollutants can have detrimental effects on air quality and contribute to respiratory issues, especially for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

At this point, we know that some VOCs are highly toxic, but not all of them have known health consequences… as for me? I’d rather error on the side of caution as much as possible until we know more. (Maybe these unknown chemical compounds will be really good for us? One can hope, right?)

  1. Where are these VOCs?

To fully understand the impact of VOCs on indoor air quality, it is essential to identify their sources. Common culprits include:

  • Paints and Solvents: Many paints, varnishes, and paint strippers contain high levels of VOCs. Solvents used in these products can release harmful gases during and after application.
  • Cleaning Supplies: Some cleaning agents, especially those with strong fragrances, contain VOCs that can contribute to poor indoor air quality.
  • Building Materials and Furnishings: Carpets, upholstery, particleboard, plywood, and laminate flooring can emit VOCs, particularly when they are newly installed or freshly manufactured.
  • Personal Care Products: Fragrances (these deserve their own post), deodorants, hair sprays, and other personal care products may contain VOCs that are released into the air when used.

3.     What practical steps can we take?

To mitigate the impact of VOCs on indoor air quality, here are some practical strategies:

  • Choose Low-VOC Products: When purchasing paints, cleaning supplies, or personal care products, opt for those labeled as low-VOC or VOC-free. (It takes time, but once you know what you’re shopping for, it becomes second nature!)
  • Increase Ventilation: Proper ventilation is crucial in reducing VOC concentrations indoors. Open windows, use exhaust fans, and maintain a well-ventilated environment whenever possible.
  • Allow for Off-Gassing: Newly installed materials or furnishings can release higher levels of VOCs. If feasible, allow these items to off-gas in a well-ventilated area before bringing them into your living space.
  • Use Air Purifiers: High-quality air purifiers equipped with activated carbon filters can effectively capture and reduce VOCs in the air, improving indoor air quality.
  • Dust and Vacuum: Dust can accumulate VOCs that have settled on surfaces, so regular dusting and vacuuming can help remove these particles and reduce VOC levels in your home. Want someone to do it for you? We know just the folks… ;)

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) pose a significant threat to indoor air quality and can have adverse effects on our health. By understanding their sources and potential risks, we can take proactive steps to minimize exposure. Whether it's opting for low-VOC products, increasing ventilation, cleaning more often, or utilizing air purifiers, we have the power to create cleaner and healthier living environments. Let’s strive to make informed choices and embrace practices that help our families breathe better, and live healthier!

Morgan Polson
June 8, 2023