New car smell, freshly clean laundry, lemon scented bathroom…. These are all smells that are familiar and maybe even comforting to us. But, while these fragrances can be pleasing to your nose, they may be doing damage to your body.
What are VOCs
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes. When these VOCs enter your nose, tiny receptors register them as smells.
Unfortunately, while most outdoor pollutants are regulated in the United States, indoor ones are not, meaning that we don’t always know what pollutants we’re breathing in and how they will affect our health.
What are the long term health concerns from VOCs?
The short answer is… we don’t really know. Because there’s no regulation on indoor air and many chronic or life-threatening illnesses are caused by multiple factors, there’s still a lot to be learned about the impact VOC’s can have on our health.
What we do know is that there are some, like formaldehyde, which are directly harmful and many others that can react with other gases in your home to form new air pollutants.
The CDC has collected a list of many of the toxins we are commonly exposed to, along with research about how they can affect your health.
Are there any immediate health effects from VOCs?
There can be…. Whether or not someone experiences immediate health effects depends upon several factors, including the type of chemical, how concentrated the chemical is in the air, how long the exposure continues, and whether or not the person smelling the chemical has any particular sensitivities.
Strong odors can cause some people to feel a burning sensation that leads to breathing problems. Others may experience headaches, dizziness, or nausea. If an odor lasts a long time or keeps occurring, it also could affect mood, anxiety, and stress level.
Do all VOCs have smells?
Unfortunately, they don’t. In fact, some of the most dangerous gasses have no smell.
According to the EPA, even indoor air that seems clean and odorless can contain levels of VOCs that are 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors.
What common household items contain high concentrations of VOCs?
VOCS can be found both outdoors and indoors. The American Lung Association lists these are the most common sources of VOCs we may be exposed to:
- Paint, paint strippers
- Varnishes and finishes
- Caulks and sealants
- Flooring, carpet, pressed wood products
Home & personal care products:
- Cleaners and disinfectants
- Air fresheners
- Cosmetics and deodorants
- Fuel oil, gasoline
- Tobacco smoke
- Dry-cleaned clothing
- Arts and crafts products: glues, permanent markers, etc.
- Wood burning stoves
- Office printers and copiers
- Diesel emissions
- Wood burning
- Oil and gas extraction and processing
- Industrial emissions
How can you limit your exposure to VOCs?
While avoiding VOCs completely is nearly impossible in our modern world, there are some things you can do to limit your exposure:
Don’t allow anyone to smoke in your home
Smoking releases many harmful chemicals into your air. Make sure to always keep indoor areas smoke-free.
Use products low in VOCs
Some of the biggest sources of VOCs are paints and building materials. Look for products with “low VOCs” on the label.
Use alternative methods to solve problems
For example, instead of using pesticides for your garden, consider integrated pest management.
Open windows and use fans when you are using products with high levels of VOCs. Indoor ventilation dilutes your indoor air and reduces the concentration of VOCs.
Don’t store products with high concentrations of VOCs indoors
Paints and other products with high VOC levels should be stored away from indoor living areas, including the garage. VOCs can easily seep into your home from garages or other attached spaces.
Use an air purifier with an activated carbon filter
Activated carbon filters will remove VOCs from your indoor air. A purifier that combines True HEPA filters with activated carbon filters will remove both dangerous particulate matter and VOCs, keeping you and your family safer and healthier.