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Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Bad for Your Health?

Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Bad for Your Health?

Do you ever think about the quality of the air you're breathing in your home? Most of us take it for granted, without ever giving a second thought about what's hanging out in the air column. The issue is that air is invisible, and many suspended particles are invisible to the naked eye.

There are all types of contaminants in household air, and many of them don't have a smell or any color to them, making it challenging to assess the true air quality inside your home. This post looks at one of these contaminants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

We'll unpack what VOCs are, where they occur in the home, and what you can do to limit your exposure to VOCs.

What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Volatile organic compounds or VOCs are carbon-based chemical structures that "gas-off" at room temperature. As the name suggests, these compounds change phase fast, going from liquids to gasses in a matter of seconds or minutes. 

The gassing effect is so strong with VOCs due to the molecules in the compounds existing primarily in gaseous states. VOCs also absorb into indoor surfaces and into airborne particulates.

How Do VOCs Form?

There are artificial and natural sources of VOCs in the environment. For example, trees produce monoterpenes and isoprenes for the purpose of attracting pollinators and repelling insects, and these compounds are natural VOCs.

Manmade VOC emissions result from the vaporization of chemicals into the atmosphere or through the incomplete burning of fossil fuel sources. Some examples of outdoor VOC emissions include those produced burning wood, car exhaust fumes, and industrial processing activities.

VOCs are also in your home. They come from sources like air fresheners, printer toners, and personal care items. VOCs also occur in the gassing-off phase involved with paint drying on interior walls or ceilings, carpet glues, and even mattress construction materials.

The level of VOCs found in the home depends on the individuals living on the property and their habits of using materials or products containing VOCs. The size of the house and ventilation also play a role, as does the consistency of the activity creating the VOC emissions.

Some studies show that levels of VOCs indoors are typically 2.5-times higher than those outside.

Are VOCs Dangerous to My Health?

The good news is that most VOCs are harmless to your health. However, there are a few that require attention and avoidance. The impact VOCs have on your health depends on the compound involved with the exposure. It also depends on the concentration of the VOCs involved and exposure time to the VOC.

Many VOCs cause mild effects during a brief exposure. Some of the symptoms occurring from exposure to VOCs include a rash, sneezing, coughing, or watering of the eyes. Some people may also experience skin irritation and nausea or have difficulty breathing.

Regular exposure to some VOCs has ties with the development of chronic health conditions, such as liver damage, asthma, and damage to the central nervous system (CNS). Some may even have potential carcinogenic effects on the body, but we'll get to those in a minute.

A significant number of household and commercial cleaning products and air freshers contain high amounts of VOCs. In addition, refrigerant, cosmetics, paint, and fuel all contain VOCs you need to avoid. The incorrect disposal of commercial or residential materials containing VOCs may result in contamination of local groundwater sources.

You probably don't know that VOCs undergo a chemical conversion in sunlight, turning into ground-level ozone when interacting with nitrogen in the atmosphere. In short, this effect contributes to the smog we see in many cities around the world.

Common Dangerous Volatile Organic Compounds

When it comes to VOC exposure, we want to avoid it as much as possible. However, the majority of VOCs we encounter at home don't come in concentrations strong enough to cause severe health issues. So, for example, spraying an air freshener in the bathroom once as you leave the room probably isn't a cause for concern.

However, emptying the entire can in a small, poorly ventilated room and hanging around for 30-minutes breathing in the air isn't a good idea. That said, there are three primary chemicals releasing toxic VOCs to avoid.

Benzene

Also found in fuel and paint supplies, benzene is a known carcinogen, and regular exposure to the liquid and its fumes can lead to severe adverse health issues.

Formaldehyde

This colorless gas has a strong smell. You can find formaldehyde in various building materials, such as plywood, glues, and particleboard. VOCs are also present in materials like insulation and some fabrics. Inhaling high levels of formaldehyde can induce asthma attacks in sensitive individuals.

Perchloroethylene

You'll find this chemical compound in cleaning materials like detergents and some dry-cleaning agents. If you get your dry cleaning back and it has a strong chemical odor, find another dry cleaner.

What Can We Do to Reduce VOC Emissions?

VOCs exist inside and outside the home. For example, if you live in an industrial area or close to an industrial zone, you might risk overexposure to VOCs through industrial emissions. Therefore, it's important to understand the air quality in your local area and how it affects your health.

Given the effects VOCs can have on the public, government agencies like the EPA are starting to regulate industry production of VOCs through the manufacturing process. The regulatory authority established the Clean Air Act in 1970, revising the legislation periodically to address new risks.

EPA introduced new regulations curbing VOC emissions in 1998. The legislation limited the quantity of VOCs in consumer products like paint, foam cups, and hair spray. The EPA also introduced storage standards for oil and gas production in 2012.

The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, passed in 2008, is a citizen-based standard implemented by the EPA. In addition, the agency tracks all emissions through the NEI. The National Emissions Inventory composites data from many nodes, including local, state, and industry organizations.

The reality is that while VOCs can harm human health, they damage the environment as well. For example, science shows that VOCs form precursors to ozone formation at ground level, resulting in an increase in smog production in affected cities.

Smog is another form of air pollution with unfavorable health effects for humans and the local environment. Air pollution significantly impacts communities. For example, in cities with consistently poor air quality levels, emergency rooms see more admissions of patients with respiratory conditions like asthma attacks, shortness of breath, and even lung cancer.

Evidence shows ground-level ozone is responsible for creating reductions in agricultural crops. VOC emissions can also stunt tree growth and reduce forest yields. Cutting back on VOC emissions from industrial solvents and commercial byproducts is an important step in restoring the environment back to health.

How Can I Reduce Exposure to VOCs at Home?

People can reduce their exposure to VOCs around the home using a few simple strategies. First, stop using products like air fresheners and hair sprays that contain high levels of VOCs. Second, many companies no include information on the product label stating if it's free from VOCs.

If you're using a product containing VOCs, do so in a well-ventilated area of the home. Open the windows and doors to enhance the airflow in the room before you use the product.

Ensure you keep any products containing VOCs in proper storage conditions. Only use the products for the right applications. Avoid storing chemicals that you don't need or use; rather, donate them to someone else that needs them or to a company.

If you're using products containing high levels of VOCs, such as waterproofing sealant for your couch pillows, spray them outdoors. Make sure you let the product gas off before bringing it indoors.

Always read the warning labels and instructions on any product before bringing it into your home.

If you need a reference, you can use the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The online site has a list of household products giving you more information on the chemicals in common cleaning items and precautions for use.

How Do I Know If I Have Elevated VOC Levels in My Home?

It's hard to tell if you have elevated VOC levels in your home. Since most of them exist as colorless, odorless gas, how do you know if they are present in the air column?

If you're moving into a new home that's a recent construction, chances are the VOC levels may be high since the materials used in the process are gassing off. That's the smell you get when you enter a new home with a slightly vinegary or stuffy odor to it.

To check if the air is safe, you'll need to call a company like MI&T to assist with an air inspection. The team goes through hour home room-by-room, assessing the air quality. MI&T uses the latest technology, giving you a full report on the findings and recommendations to remediate the air in any of the rooms.

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