What are VOCs and VOC Emissions?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs to those in the know) are carbon-containing chemicals used in many day-to-day products. From upholstered and flexible polyurethane foam furniture like crib mattresses, to carpet, vinyl flooring, adhesives, composite wood, cosmetics, air fresheners, and cleaning products, VOCs are omnipresent in our lives and homes.
Products in the United States use VOCs extensively, and have done so since the 1940s. Because they’re so common, you can assume with near-certainty you have VOC-containing products in your home today.
A study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency found
levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. TEAM studies indicated that while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.
Keep reading to find out what you need to know and how to minimize your family’s exposure.
Sources of VOC Chemicals: The Bad Houseguests You Never Invited Home
VOCs are a broad class of chemical that share some general characteristics. Importantly, at room temperature VOCs are mostly gaseous and vapor-producing.
When you bring VOC-containing products into your home, these chemicals can “escape” the products’ chemical bonds.
This process is known as off-gassing. Off-gassing is responsible for that “new product” smell you can detect from memory foam, cars, and other products.
Together with phthalates, VOCs are a majo contributor to indoor air pollution. As per the EPA study cited above, air pollution inside your house is “typically 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor levels.”
When you think about how much time you spend indoors – and how much time your kids spend indoors – that number is fairly shocking.
Why Are VOCs Bad?
VOCs aren’t inherently bad. The problem is, there are thousands of them in the world.
Some are manmade and some are naturally occurring; some are harmful and some are relatively benign in low-level concentrations. Isoprene, for example, occurs naturally. Oak and Eucalyptus trees, other plants, and humans emit isoprene as part of our natural lifecycle. And while it’s a probable carcinogen, studies and observation suggests it takes very high doses to cause ill effects.
Other VOCs are more insidious or overtly harmful, even at low concentrations. Benzene and formaldehyde, for example, are VOCs. They’re also human carcinogens.
While there’s a good amount of research about individual VOCs and their health effects, less is known about the effects of multiple VOCs combined together, as can be reasonably expected to happen in our homes.
General Health Concerns with Off-Gassing and VOCs
Scientists have correlated VOCs with a range of negative health effects, from eye irritation to cancer.
Short term exposure to some VOCs is linked to eye, throat, and nose irritation; skin problems; fatigue; headaches; nausea and vomiting; dizziness; shortness of breath and a worsening of asthma symptoms.
Depending on the specific VOC compound, the amount or concentration of the VOC, and the duration and route of exposure, symptoms may also include memory and hearing loss, depression, fatigue, confusion, dizziness, feeling drunk or “high,” lack of coordination, chest tightness, shortness of breath, skin rashes, and cracked or bleeding skin. Children exposed to elevated levels of some VOCs may experience asthma symptoms.University of California San Francisco, Pediatric Environment Health Toolkit
According to Dr. Daniel Zoller, a board certified paediatrician specializing in the care of newborns and hospitalized paediatric patients, “the immediate, serious symptoms seen are with high level of VOC exposure. However, the long term effects of chronic VOC exposure in children are not well understood or studied.”
Long-term exposure to some VOCs is linked to cancer, lung irritation, liver and kidney damage, and central nervous system damage.
While some VOCs have been shown to cause cancer in humans, other VOCs are suspected carcinogens, with further research needed.
Babies are Particularly Vulnerable to VOCs
As with many chemicals, the very young, very old, and those with health concerns such as asthma may be more susceptible to the effects of VOCs.
Babies, in particular, are particularly vulnerable. Studies have found that infant crib mattresses can be a significant source of VOC exposure for babies. Young babies spend more than half their day asleep, but also inhale more air while sleeping (per their body weight) than any other age group.
Dr. Zoller adds, “this exposure can be cumulative, and can cause problems that do not show up until later in life. A 2015 study found that high VOC exposure in infancy increased a child’s risk of atopic dermatitis, an allergic skin condition, at 3 years old.”
With this in mind, it’s worth taking precautions to reduce your family’s exposure to VOCs
How to Remove VOCs from the Home & Reduce Your Family’s Exposure
Go Through Your Home, Room by Room, to Identify Sources of VOCs. Then Get Rid of What You Can.
Conduct a walk-through around your entire home, and make a note of anything that could be a source of VOCs.
Look for unused chemicals, in particular, such as a paints, solvents, adhesives, varnishes, and caulks. Even when stored, these products can cause VOCs to leak into your home’s air. Either safely dispose of them, or move them into a shed or outbuilding if available. In the future, only buy what you need to use, so you don’t have to store leftovers in your home.
Likewise, consider what scented products you have. Detergents and dryer sheets, liquid soap, deodorants, and shampoos have been found to emit more than 100 VOCs. When it comes to personal care and laundry, follow a “less is more” mantra in terms of the number of products you use, and try to choose unscented where possible.
According to Dr. Zoller, “unscented products should be preferred for infants regardless of VOC inhalation. They also have the potential for skin irritation and allergy.”
Improve Ventilation and Climate Control in Your Home
Often, indoor air quality is worse than outdoor air quality because our homes are tightly sealed for energy efficiency. Unfortunately, this means air pollutants have no where to go.
Reverse the trend by regularly opening doors and windows to introduce fresh air, and using fans to circulate air.
Doctors recommend good ventilation for other reasons, as well.
“A well ventilated nursery has a significant impact on the reduction of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome risk as well. A large study in California showed a decrease in SIDS risk by 72% with fan use in the nursery,” says Zoller.
Consider temperature and humidity as well: chemicals off-gas more in high temperatures and humidity.
Keeping your home well-ventilated, cool, and dry will help to minimize VOCs.
Consider VOCs in Your Purchase Decisions
Carpet, upholstered furniture with foam, and composite wood products all emit VOCs, and tend to off gas more when they’re new. If you purchase VOC emitting furniture, store it in a well-ventilated space at first, so VOCs don’t become trapped. Consider buying undamaged used furniture that has already had a chance to off-gas, or floor model furniture.
If purchasing used furniture, be aware that some fire retardants used prior to 2004 are no longer used in the United States due to safety. Try to purchase something that’s newer than 2004/2005, and look for undamaged upholstery. If you’re considering purchasing a used crib mattress, read our guide here.
When shopping for new items, ask about low-VOC options, such as in paint and furniture materials and finishes. Also look for Greenguard Gold certification, which sets limits on VOC emissions and conducts independent testing.