How VOCs Affect Indoor Air Quality
How VOCs Affect Indoor Air Quality
An indoor air quality issue that is hard to grasp and even harder to mitigate is the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. Some VOCs have known carcinogens. Many more have a negative effect on human health and well-being. Let’s uncover the Indoor Air Quality problems and some solutions.
What are VOCs?
Organic compounds include molecules that contain carbon. Life on earth is based on carbon, both flora, and fauna; organic compounds are related to or derived from living organisms. Volatile means that something will easily evaporate. Water is volatile, but not organic. Perfume is both volatile and organic, so is included in the list of VOCs. However, not all VOCs are as harmless to your Indoor Air Quality, such as perfume and cooking odor.
More harmful VOCs commonly found in your home result from:
- Off-gassing from manufactured materials, such as carpet and furniture. The fabric fibers’ finishes, and adhesives give off residual gases for many years.
- Common cleaners and disinfectants
- Insect repellants and herbicides
- Office equipment, such as markers and printer ink
Some VOCs are more serious than others; formaldehyde, for instance, is a known carcinogen and has off-gases from carpet and flooring for several years.
The Problem with VOCs and Your Indoor Air Quality
Volatile organic compounds can also be found in nature and not all VOCs are harmful. However, the problem arises in our homes when VOCs are concentrated indoors. We build our homes with products that off-gas, use cleaning products in our homes that are volatile, and close ourselves up inside for comfort and convenience. According to the EPA, the level of VOCs inside most homes is 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor air.
VOCs are at their highest concentration shortly after construction is completed; your house has a “new” smell, which is not very healthy. A major remodeling will also increase the level of VOCs. Perhaps your garage is a storage space for several compounds that are evaporating, and the VOCs enter your home every time the door opens.
VOCs tend to irritate tissue upon contact, but we rarely recognize the contact with the VOC gas, and our nose gets used to the odor. Potential health issues include:
- Unexplained headaches, loss of balance, or nausea
- Irritation of eyes, nose, and throat
- VOCs can trigger asthma attacks or allergic reactions
- In more serious cases, VOCs can damage the liver, and central nervous system, and cause cancer
Practical Steps to Reduce VOC exposure
Remember that we are surrounded by VOCs, both indoors and outdoors, so the goal is to reduce your exposure. Every building material, including unfinished wood, will produce VOCs. So here are a few steps toward reducing the concentration of VOCs in your home.
- Research products with fewer VOCs. When you remodel, paint, or replace the flooring, do a little research. When you choose common cleaners and disinfectants, find products that give off fewer VOCs. When you need to use an adhesive, paint, or furniture finish, buy only the amount needed for a project to avoid a half-empty can being stored in the basement for years. Remove unused portions of solvents and dispose of them properly.
- Open doors and windows regularly to reduce the concentration of VOCs inside your home. Turn off the HVAC (if necessary) and open up the house for 30 minutes or so. This vents the VOC outside and brings in the fresh air. Some homes have heat recovery air exchangers that bring in outside air for better ventilation without energy loss.
- Consider an air purifier with an activated charcoal filter. Regular air filters cannot capture odors or gases, but the activated charcoal portion of the filter has tiny openings that trap gases. Research the available air purifiers and choose the product that is right for you. Place the air purifier(s) strategically to remove VOCs in high concentrations or in bedrooms as family members sleep.
- Indoor Air Quality testing devices are available for home use if you are curious. If you suspect a problem or if family members have health issues that put them at greater risk, professional testing is available.