The air that we breathe is vital to our healthy lives, yet we hardly pay attention to it unless there is a foul smell or smoke. The real challenge is keeping our homes safe from toxins that are abundant in the chemicals used to make everything.
Many of these chemicals are dangerous to breathe in and yet may not have a distinctive odor that is noticeable. Having a strong smell, or the lack thereof, is not a good indicator of the level of risk to your health. Some of the most dangerous airborne toxins, such as carbon monoxide, are completely odorless but deadly.
If you have a home, you want it to be a safe place to live. That means you want the roof to keep rain out, insulation to keep the heat out, and clean air that is free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
What is a VOC?
A volatile organic compound is one of a large group of chemicals used in manufacturing. VOCs are in just about everything. The risk for homeowners is that VOCs are in materials for home construction, floor coverings, paint, furniture, and in many other things used in a home such as cleaning products.
VOCs are responsible for the well-known and well-loved new car smell. When a product is newly made, such as a vinyl covering for a car seat, the VOCs evaporate in a process called off-gassing. Even though a new car smell may be pleasant to some, the off-gassing may also introduce toxic chemicals in the air that are harmful to health.
While VOCs may be organic, the use of the word organic in chemistry has a different meaning than the term organic used for agriculture to describe a method of growing food. In chemistry, the definition of organic only means that the compound contains carbon. For example, methylene chloride, which is a known VOC, is an organic chemical. Methylene is a hydrocarbon derived from methane gas. It contains carbon and hydrogen. It makes an organic compound when combined with chloride.
Methylene chloride is also called dichloromethane (DCM). It is a very strong solvent used for paint-removal products. DCM is extremely toxic. Long-term exposure may cause cancer and impaired brain function. Breathing DCM, in a poorly ventilated room, may cause death from asphyxiation.
Where Do VOCs come from?
VOCs are in many products. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publishes a comprehensive Household Products Database of the common household products that contain VOCs and may be hazardous to your health.
Examples of products that contain VOCs include:
- Cleaning Products: Air fresheners, spot removers, carpet shampoo, oven cleaners, and disinfectants
- Building Materials: Wood laminates, siding, insulation, treated wood, carpeting, flooring, and vinyl products
- Furniture: Upholstery, foam, painted items, and coverings
- Decorative Items: Window coverings, shutters, shades, and curtains
- Home Maintenance Products: Paint, caulk, grout, stain, putty, and insulation
- Personal Care Products: Nail polish remover, antiperspirant, hair spray, makeup, shampoo, and soap
- Bathroom Products: Shower curtains, Rugs, mirror, glass, tub, and toilet cleaners
- Art and Crafts Products: Adhesives, paste, glue, glaze, primer, paint, thinner, and varnish
- Pet Care Products: Flea or tick control, litter, and odor removers
- Exterior Care Products: Lawn care, fertilizer, and swimming pool maintenance
- Pesticides: Insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides
- Garage Items: Gasoline, fuel oil, propane, brake fluid, de-icers, lubricants, fuel treatments, and sealers
Exposure to VOCs may also come from activities such as auto maintenance, burning wood, cooking, dry cleaning clothes, hobbies, photocopying, and smoking.
Types of VOCs
The World Health Organization defines VOCs as all organic compounds, except pesticides, which have a boiling point between 50°C and 260°C (122°F to 500°F).
There are three types of VOCS. They are differentiated by the ease of evaporation as compared by examining their boiling points.
The compounds with the lowest boiling points of 0°C up to 100°C (32°F to 212°F) are called very volatile organic compounds (VVOCs). Examples of compounds in this category include butane, propane, methyl chloride, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde.
This is the most abundant group. Many common VOCs in a home come from this group. The boiling points of these compounds are higher than the VVOCs.
A higher boiling point can cause more problems because the out-gassing may be slower and last longer. Compounds in this group include acetone, benzene, ethanol, hexanal, toluene, and xylene.
This category of semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) includes compounds with a boiling point over 260 °C (500 °F). Examples of SVOCs include polybrominates used as flame retardants, phthalates, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Health Effects When Exposed to VOCs
Not all VOCs are harmful. In fact, some are wonderful. Without VOCs, a rose, spices, scented candles, essential oils, and other pleasant things used for aromatherapy would not have a nice smell. An example of a natural VOCs are the terpenes that give flowers a nice smell.
Unless you live in a hermetically-sealed glass chamber with highly-filtered air, like an intensely allergic “bubble boy,” you are constantly being exposed to VOCs. For example, formaldehyde is found almost everywhere because it is part of the air pollution caused by automobiles.
Managing the exposure is the recommendation, along with avoiding toxic exposure levels.
The most common exposure pathway for VOCs is inhalation. The VOCs are in the air that we breathe. Measurements of the components in the air are possible to make with highly-sensitive laboratory equipment.
These measurements calculate the amount of different VOCs in the air as stated in parts per million (ppm), parts per billion (ppb), or parts per trillion (ppt). Ppm measurement of a VOC in a sample of air is the ratio of the VOC molecules in one million air particles.
For example, 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in sampled air means that for every one million air particles, 400 of them are carbon dioxide molecules. This is equal to 0.04%. Ppb is one thousand times smaller concentration than ppm and ppt is one thousand times smaller than ppb.
It is possible for VOCs as a gas or a liquid to pass through the skin. When the gaseous molecules of VOCs in the air come in contact with skin, they are absorbed. Moreover, when a VOC in liquid form comes in contact with the skin it can be absorbed as well.
Naturally, short-term exposure is less risky than long-term exposure. Nevertheless, even short-term exposure can be harmful depending on the toxicity of the VOC that you are exposed to even for a short time.
Different people react differently to the same levels of exposure depending on their personal sensitivity. Consider the effect of formaldehyde on different people.
The National Cancer Institute reports that exposure to formaldehyde at a concentration exceeding 0.1 ppm, some people have negative reactions that include coughing, nausea, watery eyes, wheezing, skin irritation and burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat. Other people, when exposed to the same level, have no adverse reactions.
Long-term exposure to many VOCs is dangerous, and serious problems may arise. Using formaldehyde as our example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first classified formaldehyde as a potential human carcinogen in 1987.
Since that time, reasearch has associated formaldehyde with certain human cancers. In 2011, the HHS added formaldehyde to the list of known cancer-causing agents for humans. The cancer risk from formaldehyde is increased for those with high levels of long-term exposure, such as embalmers due to the chemical most used in the embalming process being formaldehyde. Builders who use materials such as pressed-wood products made with formaldehyde-based resins are also at an increased risk of cancer due to VOCs.
How to Cut Down on VOCs
There are many practical ways to cut down on exposure to potentially toxic VOCs. First, use fewer products that contain them and chose less-toxic alternatives whenever possible.
Allow products that contain VOCs do their out-gassing outside. For the VVOCS, this is as simple as allowing the products to air out in the exterior of a home for a few hours. For most VOCs, all you have to do is wait until there is no longer the obvious smell coming from the new materials.
If you must use products than contains toxic VOCs, follow all the manufacturers’ safety precautions. It is best to use them only while wearing protective gear that includes clothes that cover any exposed skin, gloves, eye protection, and a high-quality respirator mask.
If it is not possible to use them outside, use them in a well-ventilated space.
When it comes to lowering exposure to VOCs, ventilation is the best self-defense. Proper ventilation exchanges the air in a room with fresh air. This helps to keep the concentration of VOCs down and improves the room air quality.
Bring in fresh, clean air by opening windows, using fans, and turning on either kitchen exhaust fans or bathroom exhuast fans. If no exhaust fans exist, then use a temporary ventilator fan to move air through the room and out the windows. Industrial-grade ventilators are available that move significant qualities of air volume.
Increase Ventilation When Bringing VOC Sources into Home
If you know in advance that you will be introducing more VOCs in your home, plan to increase ventilation. The ventilation may be temporary for jobs where the VOCs will rapidly dissipate such as a new interior paint job.
The ventilation may need to be more permanent for things that will be ongoing such as adding a new room for arts and crafts or hobby woodworking shop.
Follow Manufacturers’ Labels When Using Household Chemicals
Manufacturers worry about product liability and customers harmed by using their products. They put warnings on toxic products to help consumers reduce risks. Read the instructions very carefully and follow the safety precautions.
New carpets will out-gas VOCs for a short period. If possible, unroll the carpet and leave it to air outside for a few hours before installing it. If that is not possible, the carpet off-gassing usually takes one to five days. If you can, leave the windows open and use a powerful whole-room fan to blow air through the rooms where you install the new carpet. Keep your ceiling fans going as well, to help circulate the air.
Use Glue Made for Indoor Use
If using adhesive for carpet or floor-covering installation, it is likely to emit strong VOCs. The carpet may not be the source of the odor if the adhesive is off-gassing as well.
There are specialty glues made from ingredients that do not include significant levels of VOCs. These glues are for use inside the home.
Leave Area During Installation
When installing new carpet, this may be a good time to take a vacation away from the home. If you are extremely sensitive to smells, have allergies, or suffer from respiratory problems, such as asthma, one thing to consider is to stay away for a few days after new carpet installation.
Ventilate the area as much as possible and continue to do so after the installation is complete. Some services will bring their own industrial fans or blower fans to ventilate the home, but you should still open a few windows regardless.
Using Natural Products
Many natural products have nice smells. Use them instead of other choices made with harsh chemicals. An example of this type of product is a natural cleaner made from citrus that is non-toxic, pleasant to use, and smells nice. The only people bothered by this type of product are those allergic to citrus.
Living houseplants are natural air purifier. Through the process of growing by photosynthesis, they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Plants naturally make the air in a room more oxygen-rich with fewer toxins.
How to Reduce VOCs in the Home With Fans
Fans do more than just help cool your home. Fans are helpful to bring in some fresh air and move stagnant air around to help reduce the concentration of VOCs. No matter which type of fan you have, whether it’s a large floor fan or a a small desk fan, it can be helpful for pushing VOCs out of your home.
Air Purifier Fans
Air purifier fans are helpful for general ventilation. The ones with HEPA filters are designed to remove particles from the air such as dust, pollen, and pet dander. HEPA filters do not remove VOCs. An activated carbon filter may remove some VOCs.
Window fans are very helpful in moving air through a house. One technique worth considering is to place a large heavy-duty windows fan in an upper window and open a window on the opposite side of the room.
Rather than have the window fan blow air into the room from outside, instead have it pull air from the room to the outside. This will bring a flow of fresh outside air in through the opposite window and create a nice airflow through the room that passes out the other window taking the VOCs with it, as it passes by.
Exhaust fans are very useful in kitchens, bathrooms, attics, basements, garages, and other places in the home where VOCs may exist. On top of removing VOCs from the home, they can also help control humidity in the home.
Bathroom Exhaust Fans
Bathrooms can commonly contain VOCs hidden in the form of household cleaning products and other materials. Glues and adhesives, furnishings, and paints can also be present in your home’s bathroom. Especially given the small size of most bathrooms, a bathroom exhaust fan is a valuable addition to your bathroom both because of its ability to ventilate VOCs out of the room and for its ability to control bathroom moisture and humidity.
Attic Exhaust Fans
Similar to the rest of the house, attics can pose a risk for anyone trying to avoid VOCs due to paints, construction materials, and other fumes. However, unfinished attics have another risk as well: Insulation. Though not all forms of insulation are dangerous, many produce VOCs and are dangerous to inhale. Natural insulation products like wool can be an alternative for those who want to minimize VOCs in their home, and the use of an attic exhaust fan can minimize VOCs by ventilating fumes out of the attic before they can majorly affect homeowners.
Stove Range Hoods
Whether you’re aware of it or not, range hoods on stoves are another type of exhaust fan. Because smoke and burning gases and oils can be a source of VOCs, it’s extremely important to ventilate the area around the stove while cooking or baking. By using a stove range hood, you can minimize VOCs in the kitchen produced while you’re cooking.
Other Ways to Reduce VOC Levels in the Home
An innovative and effective way to remove VOCs from the air is using a high-capacity air filtration system that works with a process called photo electrochemical oxidation to destroy the VOCs at the molecular level. This type of system is helpful for those with severe allergies and who are highly sensitive to VOCs.
VOCs contribute to environmental pollution. Pedestal fans and proper ventilation help reduce the negative effects of VOCs for safer home environments and to enjoy clean fresh air without toxins.