Volatile Organic Compounds – also known as “VOCs” – are chemicals that vaporize at room temperature. Most VOCs are released into the air when we use products and materials containing VOCs. Breathing in VOCs can be harmful to health.
VOCs, like formaldehyde, benzene and ethylene glycol are found in thousands of products that we use every day – cleaning products, air fresheners, cosmetics and personal care products, paints, markers, glues and much more. They are also emitted during certain activities, like frying or broiling foods, smoking cigarettes or vaping, and using fuel-burning appliances like gas stoves and furnaces.
But there are some surprising places we find VOCs in the home. Knowing where these chemicals can be found is the first step in taking action to reduce your family’s exposure to these harmful chemicals.
What are the Dangers of VOCs in the Home?
VOC levels are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. This holds true even near high-pollution sources like petrochemical factories. Considering that we spend 90% of our time indoors and most of that time is spent in our homes, VOC concentrations at home are important to address.
Exposure to VOCs can have a range of health effects, with the respiratory system being particularly vulnerable. Short-term exposure to VOCs can lead to eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and dizziness. Prolonged or repeated exposure to high levels of VOCs may contribute to more serious health problems, especially for individuals with existing lung disease. People with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may experience worsened symptoms when exposed to VOCs. VOCs may also contribute to the development of allergies and sensitivities, particularly in children. Some VOCs, like formaldehyde and benzene, can cause cancer.
Children, older people and individuals with respiratory conditions are at greatest risk of experiencing health problems associated with VOCs. Children breathe more air relative to their body size, which means they inhale a higher concentration of VOCs. Older adults may have compromised immune systems and respiratory function, making them more susceptible to VOC-related health issues.
Where are the Surprising Places VOCs are found in the home?
Products containing VOCs are commonly found in your kitchen (cleaning supplies, gas stoves, frying food), in your garage (vehicle exhaust, paints, solvents), office (printers, markers, correction fluid) and bathroom (air fresheners, hairspray, cosmetics), but you might be surprised to know that your closet, craft room and living room may also pose a threat.
Dry-cleaned clothing off-gas the chemical solvents used to clean the fabric long after you pick them up from the cleaners. Perchloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, can still be found in high levels on fabrics weeks after cleaning. Even still in the bag, clothes can off-gas these chemicals into the air.
Art & craft supplies like glues, markers, aerosol spray paints and photographic solutions can contain high levels of VOCs. In fact, permanent and dry erase markers have been shown to have an average total VOC emissions 400 times more than washable markers and highlighters.
Home furnishings like draperies, upholstered furniture, carpets, and materials with flame retardants and stain repellents emit VOCs. VOCs are higher with new products and tend to dissipate over time. Composite wood products like pressed wood furniture also contain formaldehyde.
How to Reduce VOCs at Home
The best way to address VOCs in the home is to completely eliminate the use of products and materials that contain VOCs – if they aren’t in the home, they can’t harm you. But, given the universal nature of VOCs, it’s nearly impossible to keep all VOCs out of the home.
You can reduce exposure to VOCs by taking these steps:
- Source Control: minimize the use of VOC-containing products and materials. Only buy what you need to have on hand. Opt for low-VOC options where available.
- Ventilate: ensure good ventilation in your home by regularly opening windows and using exhaust fans when cooking or using VOC-emitting products. Fresh, outdoor air will help to dilute the VOCs in the air.
- Clean the Air: consider using portable air cleaners equipped with HEPA and activated carbon filters to neutralize VOCs from the indoor air.
When using products containing VOCs, be sure to follow the product instructions. Always use products as directed and wear the proper personal protection, like gloves and an N-95 mask. Store products away from living spaces in well-ventilated areas – even when not in use, some products still emit VOCs.
Now, for those surprising places you find VOCs, here are some specific recommendations:
Furnishing Your Home: opt for solid wood furniture over pressed wood. Before installing new carpet, pressed-wood furniture, upholstered furniture or other VOC-containing materials, unwrap it and keep in the garage for 7-10 days. This will allow many of the VOCs to vaporize before you bring it inside.
Dry Cleaning: air dry your dry-cleaned clothes outdoors for a few hours before bringing them indoors. Don’t keep dry-cleaned clothes in your car as VOCs can build up in your car. Consider using a dry cleaner that uses liquid carbon dioxide or the wet cleaning method.
Crafting: use tape, glue sticks or white wood glue over rubber cement, spray glues or epoxies. Water-based paints are the safest option for craft paints. Avoid using permanent and dry-erase markers – instead use water-based unscented markers, crayons or colored pencils.
Being intentional about what products and materials you bring into your home can help to protect your family from the harmful effects of VOCs. Learn more about VOCs online.
Blog last updated: November 29, 2023