Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short, are some of the most misunderstood forms of air pollution, yet have some of the worst affects on human health.
For many people when they hear the term “volatile organic compounds” they immediately think of paints and varnishes, because a lot of these products are heavily marketed to consumers as having “low VOCs” and better for indoor air quality.
However, VOCs are present in many things around the home and outdoors that you probably wouldn’t expect.
Just because your home doesn’t smell like chemicals doesn’t mean that it’s free of volatile organic compounds.
While it’s true that some products do emit potent chemical-like odors when containing high VOC levels, the unfortunate fact is that some forms of this organic substance have no smell at all, which makes them even more dangerous.
High concentrations of VOCs, especially the odorless kind, are some of the worst air pollutants you can breathe and are known for leading to short- and long-term negative health effects.
Our goal with this post is to explain everything you need to know about volatile organic compounds, and how they impact indoor air quality and health. We’ll also give you some tips on how to lower VOC levels to improve the quality of air you breath in your home.
What Are VOCs?
To understand what volatile organic compounds are, you first need to know what is an organic compound.
Organic compounds are chemicals that contain carbon and are found in all living things.
What makes a chemical a “volatile” organic compound is the fact that it can easily become a vapor or gas and enter the air at room temperature.
VOCs are especially problematic for human health because they don’t just come and go when you use a product that contains them.
Instead, VOCs continue to be released from certain solids and liquids over long periods of time, and unfortunately these VOC emissions or “off-gas” can’t be stopped, and must run their course until every ounce has been depleted.
That off-gassing process is why VOCs impact air quality so negatively and continue to be so harmful for your well-being.
VOCs Are More Prevalent Than May You Think
Back in the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) performed a Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study to find out what the levels of volatile organic compounds were inside the average home.
The results from the research were alarming.
The EPA’s TEAM study discovered that around twelve organic compound pollutants were found inside most homes, regardless if it was located in the city or a rural area, and these VOC levels were 2 to 5 times higher than what was found outdoors.
Another interesting discovery the TEAM study found was that elevated levels of volatile organic compounds continued to remain in the air long after products that contained organic chemicals had stopped being used.
After further research, the EPA now states that concentrations of volatile organic compounds can be up to 10x higher inside homes than outside and are emitted by thousands of different household products.
Main Sources of VOCs
When it comes to the indoors there are many household items that emit volatile organic compounds, including:
- Glues and adhesives
- Aerosol sprays
- Cleaning supplies
- Disinfecting agents
- Air fresheners
- Stored fuels (i.e. gasoline and kerosene)
- Automotive products
- Dry-cleaned clothing
- Fabric cleaners
- Building materials
- Vinyl flooring
- Carpeting material
- Electronic devices
- Office equipment (i.e. printers and copiers)
As you can see from the list above, literally no home is safe from the exposure of VOCs. There are just too many residential products that produce these pollutants.
A more detailed list of indoor volatile organic compounds, along with their chemical names and products they are most present in, can be found at the end of this post.
Additionally, you can find out what specific products in your home may be putting you at risk by checking the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Household Products Database. It lists more than 18,000 household products, what’s in them and and their potential health effects.
The Impact of VOCs on Your Health
Like with any other air pollutant, the extent of the short- and long-term health effects will vary greatly on the amount and length of time you are exposed to volatile organic compounds.
The most noticeable and short-term impacts of VOCs on your health include:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Loss of coordination
- Eye, nose and throat irritation
- Allergic skin reaction
- Visual impairment
Long-term health effects of VOC exposure include:
- Liver damage
- Kidney disorders
- Memory impairment
- Visual loss
- Damage to the central nervous system, causing behavioral changes
How to Remove VOCs from the Air
While most homes already have volatile organic compounds floating around in the air there are some things you can do to reduce your exposure.
By following the tips below you can lower the level of VOCs in the air you breath and maintain a healthier life.
1. Buy Zero or Low VOC Products
Many companies that produce household products are now making green alternatives that contain zero or low volatile organic compounds.
Look for this classification on product labels when shopping for any type of cleaning agent, paint, adhesive or other item listed in the “Main Sources of VOCs” section above. This simple step can drastically reduce the level of VOCs in your home moving forward.
2. Follow the Label Instructions
Any product that has VOCs, no matter the level, is considered potentially hazardous. Therefore, these items always contain warning labels and specific instructions that you should follow in order to protect your health.
For example, if a product says to use it in a well-ventilated area along with a respirator, then do it.
3. Increase Ventilation
When working with products that have VOCs is always best to use them outdoors, but if that isn’t an option then make sure to open as many windows as possible and keep them open for an extended period of time afterwards.
If opening windows isn’t possible, the last resort is to use the product in a room that has an exhaust fan. This will at least provide some protection by venting volatile organic compounds that get released to the outdoors.
4. Don’t Store Unused Chemicals and Fuels
You may find this hard to believe, but volatile organic compounds can easily leak out from closed containers after the seal has been broken. VOC vapors can seep through the tiniest of cracks.
Therefore, it’s best to only buy as much supplies as you need for a particular task and then throw away the rest.
Common products that are found in many homes that leak VOCs include paints, stains, varnishes, kerosene and gasoline. If you must keep things like these for an extended period of time, ensure that they are stored only in well ventilated areas or in outdoor locations, like in a shed.
5. Use an Air Purifier
While limiting the use of household products that contain volatile organic compounds is a great idea, under normal circumstances, you’ll never be 100% safe all the time.
No matter what you do there will always be some level of VOCs in the air you breathe unless you use an air purifier.
Air purifiers are one of the best ways for how to remove VOCs from indoor air.
These machines work by pulling air in from the room, passing it through a special filter and trapping the airborne contaminants. Most air cleaners exchange the air within a room between 4 to 6 times every hour, which keeps the air as fresh as possible and free of volatile organic compounds.
The only thing you have to look for when buying an air purifier is that is includes an Activated Carbon Filter.
Other filters, like a HEPA filter, are great at removing dust, pollen, bacteria and mold, but Activated Carbon Filters are the only type that can capture gaseous pollutants such as VOCs.
Another advantage of Activated Carbon Filters is that they’re excellent at removing smells that linger around the home. This includes odors from cooking, tobacco, pets and other household things.
The two air products we recommend on this link are considered the top rated air purifiers for smoke, but their design also makes them great at removing VOCs and odors. One has a six-stage air purification system, while the other has 15 lbs. of Activated Carbon to keep your home smelling as fresh as can be. So, take a look.
6. Control the Indoor Climate
Another way remove VOCs from indoor air is to maintain the relative humidity levels.
The optimal relative humidity levels for health and comfort inside is between 35-50%. Any higher and it will cause off-gassing of VOCs to occur at a faster rate.
An additional benefit of keeping relative humidity below 50% is the prevention of dust mites, mold and mildew growth, and inhibiting some bacteria from forming inside the home.
The best way to find out what the relative humidity levels are at your residence is to use a simple instrument called a hygrometer.
A hygrometer measures the amount of water in the air in terms of relative humidity. You can pick one up online or at your local home improvement store for around $10-25.
Hopefully after getting an initial humidity level reading your home will fall within the proper range, however, it doesn’t then the percentage will determine what you should do next.
If relatively humidity is too high then consider the purchase of a dehumidifier. A dehumidifier will reduce moisture in the air.
If relative humidity is too low then you’ll want a humidifier. Humidifiers add moisture into the air to bring up the humidity to the ideal levels.
7. Practice Integrated Pest Management Tactics
If you routinely use pesticides as a preventative measure for controlling pests indoors then you’re probably exposing yourself to high levels of volatile organic compounds.
This can easily be fixed while also keeping pests away.
An simple method for how to remove VOCs from the air is by using an alternative method called Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
IPM is an environmentally sensitive approach to pest control that suppresses pests by minimizing the conditions that they need to survive (i.e. water, food and shelter.) IPM techniques protect human health and the environment.
By practicing a holistic approach like IPM you can usually eradicate pest problems without the need for pesticides. Plus, by following these strategies you’ll reduce the likelihood of pests returning because their optimal living conditions have been tampered with.
Pesticides are usually just a temporary solution while IPM methods works long-term.
Commonly Found Indoor Volatile Organic Compounds
Below is a list of common VOCs you’ll find around the home.
- Formaldehyde – manufactured wood products (OSB, plywood, MDF) and particle board, which are used as building materials and in furniture (i.e. desks, bookshelves, cabinets, etc.)
- Decane – petroleum products such as kerosene
- Butoxyethanol – paints, surface coatings, household and automotive cleaning products, cosmetics, dry cleaning solutions, varnishes, liquid soaps and caulk
- Benezene – tobacco smoke, paints, fuels, detergents, thinners, furniture wax and glues
- Isopentane – cosmetics and personal care products (i.e. shaving cream, hair conditioners, cleansing solutions)
- Limonene – fragrances and cleaning supplies that contain citrus oil
- Styrene – packing materials, insulation, fiberglass, plastic pipes, automobile parts and carpet backing
- Xylenes – automotive paints, polish and primers, caulk, epoxy adhesives, floor polish, pesticides and aerosol paints
- Perchloroethylene (also known as Tetrachloroethylene) – fabric cleaners, adhesives, spot removers, shoe polish and household hard surface cleaners
- Methylene Choloride – paints and strippers, varnishes, adhesives and automotive cleaners
- Toluene – adhesives, paint thinners, aerosol paints, automotive cleaners, floor and furniture polish and cleaners, wood furniture, wall coverings and waterproofing compounds
- Vinyl Chloride – PVC plastics, packing materials, furniture upholstery, wall and floor coverings, carpet backing, housewares, automotive parts and cable coatings
To learn more about air pollution and how it impacts your health, check out our air quality facts page here.