You may have heard the term “VOCs” or even seen it on paint cans in the store. But what are VOCs and are they really a big problem for you and your family? VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which have been shown to have both short and/or long-term adverse health effects. Studies by the EPA and other researchers have found that VOCs are common in indoor environments and that their levels may be two to a thousand times higher than outdoors. At any given time, there may be anywhere from 50 to hundreds of individual VOCs in your indoor air.
VOCs is an abbreviation for “Volatile Organic Compounds” which are chemicals used to manufacture and maintain certain building materials, interior furnishings, cleaning products and personal care products. The “volatile” part means that these chemicals evaporate or can easily get into the air at room temperature. And if they’re in the air, it means that you can inhale them or breathe them in. The “organic” part means these chemicals are carbon-based. (This may be a little confusing, as consumers generally associate the word “organic” as foods or products not grown or manufactured with added chemicals.) VOCs also combine with other airborne compounds to form ozone, which isn’t good to breathe.
So VOCs are chemical compounds that get released into the air by certain products. But can they hurt you? Yes. Even at low levels, VOCs may product objectionable odors that may irritate your senses. Many VOCs are irritants and can cause headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, skin reactions and dizziness. Long-term exposure to certain VOCs may also lead to chronic diseases or cancer, and at higher concentrations, some VOCs are toxic. If these kinds of concerns arise with adults, imagine what they could do to a child with a growing and developing neurological system. Children also breathe in and process a greater volume of air than adults relative to their body size, so the chemicals can be even more harmful.
The good news is that there are ways to help reduce your exposure to VOCs. The best way to prevent VOCs from harming your family is to keep pollutants out in the first place. Here are a few things that you can do:
Ventilate well when using products that emit VOCs.
Use products according to the manufacturer’s directions and do not store unused portions– throw them out.
Replace cleaning products with homemade alternatives.
Choose third-party certified low-emitting products, for example, GREENGUARD Certified paint.
Be wary of products labeled “Low VOC,” as this claim typically refers to impact on outdoor – not indoor– air.