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What Are Off-Gassing and Out-Gassing, and How Do These Processes Impact Your Indoor Air Quality?

Growing awareness of the danger Volatile Organic Compounds pose to human health means that many people are now at least vaguely aware of off-gassing. Have you noticed a strange smell in your home or your workplace? Are you suffering from health complaints like a sore throat, breathing difficulties, and frequent headaches, and do these symptoms get worse when you spend more time indoors? Wondering whether off-gassing could be the culprit, you will want to know all about this harmful phenomenon and the ways in which you can improve your indoor air quality.

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

A wide variety of solids and liquids commonly found in homes and commercial spaces alike emit Volatile Organic Compounds. These chemicals (including formaldehyde, acetone, phenol, and butanol) vaporize, turning into gases, and may also dissolve in water — from which they can once again be emitted as gasses.

Many VOCs have been established as noxious, with the potential to cause both short-term discomfort and long-term health complications. The bad news is that, no matter where you live or work, you will be exposed to harmful VOCs. Potentially dangerous Volatile Organic Compounds are released from thousands of products you may come into contact with on a daily basis. VOCs may be emitted by anything from the cleaning materials you use to keep your home or office space free from pathogens to furniture, carpets, mattresses, and bedding. Even construction materials can release VOCs.

Examples of common sources of VOC emissions within homes and office spaces include:

  • Cleaning and disinfecting agents.
  • Paints, varnishes, and pain strippers.
  • Wood preserving agents.
  • Computers and printers.
  • Appliances such as refrigerators.
  • Stationary, markers, correction fluid, and other office supplies — and within residential homes, and arts and crafts supplies may also be added to the list.
  • Insecticides, pesticides, moth repellents, and air fresheners.
  • Furniture.
  • Materials used in the construction and finishing of buildings, such as floor wax, chemically-treated wooden floors, wallpaper, caulking sealant, and insulation.

Although Volatile Organic Compounds also pollute outdoor air, numerous studies have established that their concentration is significantly higher indoors. Regardless of where you live, your home is statistically likely to have VOC concentrations that are two to five times higher than those you would find outdoors under perfectly normal living conditions. In the hours that follow hazardous activities such as paint stripping or having a new floor installed, the VOC levels in your home could reach hundreds of times the concentration you would encounter outside.

What Are Off-Gassing and Out-Gassing?

Off-gassing and out-gassing are terms used to describe the process through which liquids and solids release Volatile Organic Compounds into the air. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important distinction. When you follow discussions about out-gassing, these likely apply to manufacturing processes and other specialized settings such as auto garages. Off-gassing is more often used to talk about the release of VOCs within homes and office spaces, and in these cases, the source of the potentially-noxious gases lies within products that are almost universally present within homes and offices.

How do you know off-gassing is unfolding within your indoor air? We are all very familiar with the characteristic smell of brand new furniture, or the odor you might encounter in a building that was recently constructed. This smell is a primary sign of ongoing off-gassing. The scent emitted by freshly dry-cleaned clothing is another example. When you are able to smell something, that is because tiny molecules have escaped from the source of that odor — meaning that a smell is actually evidence that a substance is physically interacting with your body.

You will be well aware that the “new” smell associated with products we bring into our spaces wears off quite quickly; it may take hours, days, or weeks before you can no longer detect this odor. That does not, unfortunately, mean that off-gassing is no longer a problem. Some Volatile Organic Compounds off-gas quickly, while others linger and are emitted primarily within warmer temperature ranges. Therefore, you are especially likely to suffer the noticeable physical effects of off-gassing during the summer. Because VOC-emitters that have been present in a space may no longer give off that characteristic smell, these symptoms could be your only clue that off-gassing is occurring.

What Health Consequences Can Off-Gassing Have?

People who are exposed to Volatile Organic Compounds may suffer from immediately apparent symptoms, either following severe exposure or when spending significant amounts of time in an environment that consistently emits lower VOC concentrations. The most common symptoms related to VOC exposure include:

  • Conjunctivitis — an inflammation of the membranes within your eyes that causes redness, irritation, and discomfort.
  • A sore throat and irritated nasal passages.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Headaches.
  • Skin rashes resulting from an allergic reaction to VOCs.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Nosebleeds.
  • Fatigue.
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness.

With continued exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds, these short-term discomforts are, however, the least of your worries. VOC exposure has the potential to result in kidney and liver damage, as well as affecting your central nervous system. Research conducted among office workers even found that prolonged exposure to significant VOC concentrations can have a negative impact on your brain function. What is more, some VOCs have been proven to have a carcinogenic effect in animals, and scientists suspect that the same is true for humans.

How Can You Reduce Your Exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds?

Off-gassing can lead to extremely serious heath complications — and that knowledge will immediately make you wonder what steps you can take to reduce your exposure. On your path toward safer indoor air, you have three main weapons in your arsenal. They are removing sources of VOCs from a space, increasing ventilation, and using air filtration systems to cleanse the air of Volatile Organic Compounds.

You may not have any control over the construction materials that were quite literally built into your home or commercial space, but you do have the option of looking specifically for low-VOC carpets, paints, and furniture. By paying attention to the Volatile Organic Compounds in products you are yet to bring into your space, you stop problems before they ever begin. Whether due to health complaints among residents or workers or simply to improve general indoor air quality and health, you may also investigate the possibility of discarding big offenders and bringing in lower-VOC alternatives.

The same approach can be taken when it comes to smaller VOC-emitters. The use of air fresheners, for example, can simply be ceased — and some activities that release Volatile Organic Compounds, like painting a table, can be taken outside. Rather than keeping opened containers with products that release VOCs inside your home or office space, discard them when you are finished using them; even if they have not been emptied.

The next step — ventilation —  may be damage control rather than prevention, but its importance cannot be overstated. Open the windows regularly, but especially while you are engaged in activities that emit VOCs, such as painting. If your home or office space possesses a HVAC unit with outdoor air intake, open that vent.

As for filtration, air purifying systems and HVAC units can both be used to filter VOC out of your indoor air. These steps will not completely eliminate the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds, but they will certainly reduce VOC concentrations. Even house plants play a role in indoor air filtration.

What Other Threats to Indoor Air Quality Should You Consider?

Thanks to ongoing scientific research and widespread media coverage, more and more people are becoming aware of the widespread presence of Volatile Organic Compounds, and the fact that off-gassing can be an ongoing problem has also started to attract attention. This is good news, because knowing about a threat enables you to take steps to eliminate it.

Volatile Organic Compounds are not, however, the only risk that needs to be on your radar if you are concerned about indoor air quality. Common household allergens should never be overlooked! Household dust may, to name some examples, contain dead skin cells, pet dander, and other microscopic threats. House mites pose a serious threat to your indoor air quality — and your health — as well.

Mold is, however, one of the most easily overlooked threats to your indoor air quality. The biggest reason is that most people assume that they would easily be able to spot the physical signs of mold within their homes. This is simply not always true. While you can be certain that your home has a mold problem if you see it, mold can just as easily hide within drywall, around leaky pipes, in basements, in crawl spaces, and under roofs.

As with Volatile Organic Compounds, you may be able to smell mold that you cannot see — but the lack of that musty and moldy odor does not necessarily mean that your home does not have a mold problem.

Over 1,000 different types of mold may be present within your home. Some of those are allergenic molds, which cause some of the same symptoms people who have been exposed to off-gassing will also have — breathing trouble, a sore throat, nasal congestion, a runny nose, skin rashes, and headaches. Other molds are pathogenic, with the potential to cause serious systemic infections that could send you or one of the members of your household to the hospital. Yet other molds are simply toxic, and their buildup within your system can cause severe health complications over time.

Only an independent mold inspection company can tell you whether your home has a mold problem with absolute certainty. At MI&T, we carry out thorough mold inspections that help homeowners discover the source of their symptoms. After a visual inspection, MI&T’s independent mold inspector takes air samples that are sent to a lab to ascertain the exact nature and concentration of any mold within your property. After an MI&T mold inspection, you will no longer have to wonder whether you could have a mold problem, as you will know exactly what types of mold are present within your home, and what their originating source is.

This then enables you to take steps to eliminate the problem and deal with one major threat to your indoor air quality. While MI&T can help you make a mold remediation plan, the fact that we are a mold inspection-only company means that you can rest assured that we are unbiased. After your mold remediation plan has been carried out, we can come back to ensure that your home is now free of harmful molds.