What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

What we use to build and maintain our homes might make us sick, too
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By TWSE Explains


Reading time: 3 minutes

Filed Under: Air Quality

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, impact air quality, human health, and the environment. These compounds, which include an array of chemicals that vaporize at room temperature, are emitted from a wide variety of everyday items, such as cleaning products, paints, solvents, air fresheners, and even certain types of furniture. As our understanding of the potential risks associated with VOCs expands, we must be well-informed about their sources, effects, and how to reduce our exposure to them.

This blog post will delve into volatile organic compounds, providing a comprehensive overview of the most common VOC types, their potential health effects, and how they can infiltrate indoor and outdoor environments. We will also discuss practical strategies for mitigating exposure to volatile organic compounds and reducing their overall impact on our well-being.

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What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

VOCs are diverse organic chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. They contain carbon and can originate from both natural and human-made sources. The term “volatile” means they have a low boiling point, which allows them to evaporate easily. They may or may not have an odor, so you might not even know they’re there. VOCs can have short- and long-term effects on our health.

Sources of VOCs

VOCs come from various sources, including:

  • Household products: Cleaning supplies, paints, varnishes, and adhesives often contain VOCs. Even some air fresheners we use to make our homes smell good may release these compounds.
  • Building materials: Some common building materials, such as pressed wood products, carpets, and vinyl flooring, can emit VOCs. They may release these compounds slowly, contributing to indoor air pollution.
  • Outdoor sources: Vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and natural sources like vegetation can also be sources of VOCs.
  • Combustion: Burning fuels, like wood, coal, or natural gas, can release VOCs. That cozy fireplace might be contributing to your home’s VOC levels.

Are Volatile Organic Compounds bad for you?

Yes, especially if you are repeatedly exposed to high concentrations of VOCs. The health effects depend on the type of VOC, the concentration, and the duration of exposure. Short-term exposure may cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat.

Long-term exposure to elevated VOC levels can lead to more severe health issues, including liver, kidney, or central nervous system damage. Some VOCs, like benzene and formaldehyde, have even been classified as human carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Regardless of the amount of exposure, those with respiratory problems, young children, the elderly, and people with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to VOCs.

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How to limit the level of VOCs in your home

Thankfully, there are several steps you can take to minimize VOCs in your home:

  • Choose low-VOC products: When purchasing paints, adhesives, and other household products, look for low-VOC or no-VOC options. These products are designed to emit fewer harmful compounds.
  • Ventilate: Proper ventilation is crucial in reducing VOC levels in your home. Open windows and doors when possible, and ensure your home has an adequate exhaust system, especially in areas like the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Store products properly: Keep chemicals and other VOC-emitting products in tightly sealed containers and store them in a well-ventilated area or outside your living space, like a garage or shed.
  • Maintain indoor plants: Some indoor plants, such as spider plants, peace lilies, and Boston ferns, can help remove VOCs from the air naturally. Adding these plants to your home can improve your indoor air quality.
  • Change air filters regularly: Maintain your HVAC system by changing them regularly, as they help remove pollutants, including VOCs, from the air.

By being mindful of the products we use and taking steps to improve our home’s indoor air quality, we can reduce the presence of VOCs and create a healthier living environment.

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