Regardless of your health status, you need to be aware of VOC's and have a plan for dealing with this harmful form of air pollution.
What are VOCs?Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that are released as gases from various substances, which can be solid or liquid. They can include a variety of chemicals, including ones that have both short and long-term health impacts. While some associate air pollution with the outdoors, especially urban areas, concentrations of VOCs are actually higher indoors. This is because many of our household materials release VOCs.
While there are many different VOCs, they are all organic compounds, which are chemical compounds that contain carbon. VOCs vaporize at cooler temperatures; basically, they turn into a gas, much like water turns into steam when heated. However, unlike water, which requires high relative temperatures, VOCs turn into a gas at typical room temperatures. Generally, the warmer the ambient temperatures, the faster VOCs are released.
There is no strict definition of a VOC, as they are largely a group of organic compounds with similar characteristics. According, there are 10,000 different compounds that can be classified as VOCs. Through a process called off-gassing materials release VOC's into the air, and while off-gassing is highest when the material is new, the process can last as long as eight weeks for some products. The process is affected by the type of material, as well as the temperature.
There is a lot of complicated science, chemistry, and even a bit of biology behind VOCs, but all you really need to remember is that they can be bad for your health.
How bad? Let’s take a look…
Health Effects of VOCsAccording to the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs create a far-reaching list of health issues.
First of all, VOCs create numerous health issues, including eye, nose, and throat irritation. They cause headaches, and can even lead to the loss of coordination and eventual nausea. In the long term, exposure to VOCs can lead to liver damage, as well as problems with the kidneys and nervous system. They can also trigger issues with asthma or allergies.
There is even a theory they cause cancer, although this is still being researched. A recent study from South Korea looked at exposure to VOCs to see if there is any correlation in health risks. The study found that “adverse cancer and non-cancer health effects may occur by VOCs,” lending more authority to the theory linking VOCs and cancer.
In some cases, you can notice signs of exposure to VOCs. If you experience nose or throat irritation, allergic skin reactions, nausea, fatigue, or dizziness, you may be exposed to VOCs. It’s even more likely that exposure has occurred if you have been near some of the common sources of VOCs.
Common Sources of VOCsIn your household, you will find a shockingly high number of products and materials that emit VOCs. Some of these products, ironically, are intended to “freshen” the air, but in reality they only make your air worse. Others are products used to treat wood, decorate a home, and remove pests.
Paints and Paint-Related ProductsMany paints will release a steady flow of VOCs, especially right after application. If you are painting the interior of your house, for example, you are likely to have VOCs in the air for weeks or even months afterwards.
According to an article from Consumer Reports, the federal government caps VOC content at 250 grams per liter of paint for flat finishes, and 380 grams for low-luster, semigloss, and other finishes. In the past, the report claims, low-VOC paints did not perform as well as other products, but it appears that paint manufacturers have developed new products that give a high-quality, lasting finish.
There are now zero-VOC paints that are better for your interior air. The article finishes with a reminder that if you purchase a substandard, low-VOC paint product, and constantly have to apply refinishes, the benefit of the healthy product is diminished.
Paints are not the only decorating and design product that release VOCs. Paint strippers and other solvents also release VOCs and air pollutants after they are applied.
According to Green-Buildings.com, there are non-toxic paint strippers that contain low levels of VOCs. This could be a good choice if you are looking to remove paints but don’t want to fill your indoor air with harmful chemicals.
Aerosol Sprays and Scented MaterialsIn one of the greatest bit of irony, aerosol sprays, many of which are intended to make your air smell fresh and clean, actually add to your indoor air pollution.
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that scented consumer products emitted more than 100 different VOCs, including many that were classified as toxins. What’s worse, some of the products tested were advertised as “green,” “organic,” or “natural.”
IQ Air released a 2014 report on the “hidden dangers of scented candles.” This report says that most consumer candles are made from paraffin wax, a product that releases VOCs. VOCs released by these candles include known carcinogens such as acetone, benzene, and toluene. The article even notes a report that these candles may emit VOCs even when they are not lit.
Cleansers and DisinfectantsCleaning supplies are also a known source of VOCs. This can include soaps, polishes, and personal grooming supplies. Detergent, bleach products, dry cleaning chemicals, rug cleaners, and floor polish are also materials that can release VOCs.
To prevent exposing your household to dangerous cleaning products, the American Lung Association recommends reading all labels and choosing products that do not contain VOCs or, at the very least, selecting products that have low VOC levels.
Fuels and Automotive SuppliesWe usually consider the burning and general use of fuel as a contributor to air pollution and particulate matter, but stored fuels can also release contaminants such as VOCs.
Many of us have gasoline sitting in the garage, fuel that will be used for the lawn mower, chainsaw, snowblower, or weed trimmer. This fuel can seep VOCs.
A study of VOC composition in vehicle fuel found that “fuels contain hundreds of VOCs and can differ widely in composition.” The amount of VOCs that a fuel would seep depended largely on the temperature of the surrounding air, but vapor from E85 fuels had high concentrations of several VOCs, and seemed to release VOCs “considerably faster” than other vehicle fuels.
To reduce exposure to VOCs from fuel, keep gas in a certified container and always keep the cap on the spout so the vapor is properly sealed. If you have lots of fuel in a small space, such as a single-car garage or shed, it may be wise to ventilate the area with fresh air before spending time in that area.
How to Reduce Exposure to VOCsUnfortunately, there are a lot of different materials that can increase your exposure to VOCs. This makes reducing exposure more challenging, but it’s certainly not impossible.
The best overall measure you can take is to increase ventilation, especially when you have been working with materials that emit VOCs. If you are painting the walls or working on a hobby that involves paint, run a fan or open windows to increase the flow of air. In general, the more fresh air you can bring into your home, the less indoor air pollution you will have. Open the windows when possible to increase the flow of fresh, clean air and you’ll significantly reduce the concentrations of indoor VOCs and other pollutants.
You should also be selective with the products you choose. There are many excellent products for paint supplies, paint strippers, air fresheners, and cleaners that are either low on VOCs or release no VOCs whatsoever. These materials can help you significantly reduce overall exposure. In general, it may be useful to reduce your use of scented products, especially artificial scents, which tend to release VOCs.
If you are painting or finishing material, you may want to store the items for a few weeks once they are complete. Let’s say you are refinishing a dining table you inherited from your grandmother. Once the finish has been applied, it will release the most VOCs in the first week or two after completion. To reduce household exposure, keep the table in a safe space, such as the garage, where it can release its VOCs. Once a few weeks have passed, the finish will have released most of the contaminants, making it safer to bring inside.
You should also avoid storing paints, thinners, and solvents inside your home, or at least in any living space. The garage is okay, but it would be better to store them in an unattached shed. No matter where you store them, keep them tightly sealed.
Air Purifiers for VOCs
Activated Carbon is EssentialAir cleaners use a wide variety of technologies to remove chemicals and airborne particles from the air, but when it comes to removing VOCs, activated carbon air filters are likely the most important component. Activated carbon is excellent for the removal of gaseous elements, thanks in large part to the high surface space and the process of adsorption.
High efficiency air filters and strong motors in air purifiers are also useful for removing airborne particulates, but they are not be able to capture the extremely small gases that make up VOCs. These filters can certainly remove extremely small particles, but in many cases the VOC particles are too small even for these filters. This is why having an activated carbon filter is essential.
If activated carbon is the best material for collecting VOCs, then the mod air pufier might be the best VOC air purifiers dealing with gases, chemicals and volatile organic compounds.
Making Sure You Have the Right Air PurifierTo learn more about air purifier technology, visit our Air Quality Education Center. We want you to make a confident decision for your air purification needs. Whether you are looking for a small purifier for a child’s bedroom or a large unit to improve indoor air quality in a commercial office space, you’ll find the tools and information to make the right choice.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact our staff anytime!