Volatile Organic Compounds: The Health Dangers of VOCs, Where They are Hiding & How to Avoid Them
Products that you use in your home and office every day emit gases that can harm your health, both right away and after extended exposure. These gases are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and they’re emitted from a whole slew of items so much so that there’s a pretty good chance your new home, office, car — even that shiny new airplane you took your last business trip in — are literally bathing you in a chemical cocktail.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, concentrations of VOCs are consistently up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. Other studies have found that certain organic compounds average levels two to five times higher in indoor air than outdoor air.
What is most shocking, however, is that immediately after using certain products, such as paint stripper, studies have found that VOCs may be 1,000 times higher than background outdoor levels.
VOCs: Here, There and Everywhere
Part of the problem with VOCs is that they are so prolific in our environment.
Sources of VOCs Include …
New materials, such as those used in new homes and cars, tend to outgas more VOCs than older materials, and may decrease in VOCs as time goes by.
For instance, according to researchers of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), “Total VOCs in the indoor air of new buildings is on average 20 to 40 mg per m 3, while established buildings have VOC levels generally below 1 mg per m 3.”
In fact, it is the heavy mixture of VOCs that gives new vehicles their characteristic new car smell. Automakers do try to limit the most potent VOC-emitting items; however, the result is that the cars may no longer have the smell many consumers love — good for your health, but potentially bad for business.
Automakers have come up with a quick fix, though, and may add artificial “new car smell” or “treated leather” fragrances to vehicles.
VOCs’ Health-Harming Ways
While some VOCs cause no known health effects, others are known to be highly toxic. Their effects vary and are dependent upon several factors including:
- The length of time you’re exposed to them
- The rate at which the VOC is off-gassed
- The building’s ventilation capacity
- Whether you’re exposed to a combination of chemicals (these effects are largely unknown)
Perchloroethylene is a cancer-causing VOC used in dry cleaning. Look for environmentally friendly cleaners that do not use this toxic chemical.
Acute symptoms of VOC exposure include:
- Eye irritation/watering
- Nose and throat irritation
- Asthma exacerbation
- Allergic skin reaction
- Memory impairment
- Visual disorders
However, over time, VOCs can lead to many serious conditions including:
- Damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system
- Loss of coordination
People with respiratory problems such as asthma, young children, the elderly, and people with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more at risk from VOC health effects. CSIRO found, though, that anyone could experience acute symptoms at exposure to concentrations above about 10 mg per m3.
Remember, new buildings may average VOC levels at 20 to 40 mg per m 3, and the CSIRO report found total VOC concentrations for new cars to be as high as 64 mg per m3 of air. After a few weeks, this level fell to 2.1 mg per m3, and to about 1.5 mg per m3 after six months.
One caveat, as the temperature rose, so did the total VOC concentrations in the cars.
Reduce Your VOC Exposure Now
According to the EPA, “At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes.” That said, reducing your exposure as much as possible is a prudent measure to protect the health of yourself and your loved ones. Here are a number of tips that you can put into action today:
- Use only natural cleaning supplies in your home.
- Purchase new home and office products that contain low or no VOCs (look for Environmentally Preferable Purchasing).
- Use potentially hazardous products outside or in areas equipped with exhaust fans. At the very least, open windows and use fans to keep air circulating.
- Watch the temperature and humidity: as these increase, so will the off-gassing of chemicals.
- Filter your home’s air with a high-quality air filter.
- Dispose of partially used chemicals. Vapors can leak even from closed containers. When you purchase chemicals, purchase only the amount you will use right away. Contact your city or county for proper disposal of household hazardous wastes.
- Choose an environmentally friendly dry cleaner, like Greener Cleaners. Perchloroethylene, the chemical most widely used in dry cleaning, is a VOC known to cause cancer in animals. Studies have found that people do breathe in low levels of this chemical while wearing dry-cleaned clothing and in homes where the clothing is stored. Environmentally friendly cleaners do not use this chemical, so ask about it before dropping your clothing off for cleaning.