Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gases released from myriad sources like paints, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, pesticides, building materials, and furnishings. They’re also emitted from natural sources. Love the smell when you walk through a pine forest? It’s due to VOCs being emitted from the trees. The smell of freshly cut roses? More VOCs. Clearly, not all VOCs are bad.
The term ‘volatile organic compounds’ is a general umbrella term for a wide variety of chemicals, some that have short- or long-term adverse health effects and some that have no effect at all. Potential short-term impacts can include eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, nausea, and dizziness and long-term impacts can include liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage and even cancer.
Unfortunately, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), currently not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of VOCs usually found in homes – although, the EPA does know that indoor levels of the most common contaminants are are typically 2-5 times higher than outside.
How Can You Reduce VOC Levels in Your Home?
- Don’t bring in products that release them. The most effective way to reduce exposure to VOCs is through source control. While you can’t eliminate them completely, you can avoid the worst offenders by looking for safer alternatives to conventional paints and finishes, household cleaners, cosmetics, building materials, and furnishings.
- Ventilate. Public and commercial buildings often have better indoor air quality than private residences because they have robust and properly maintained HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) systems. When was the last time you had your heating and air conditioning appliances professionally inspected? Do you remember the last time you replaced the air filters? You can also manually ventilate your home by opening windows for a few minutes every day. Flush the bad air out and welcome cleaner air in. Better yet, install trickle vents above your windows. Trickle vents are very small openings that allow a constant exchange of air (a trickle, not a draft or breeze) to help improve indoor air quality.
- Use an air purifier.This step should only be explored after steps #1 and #2 have been taken. And before you start shopping around, get a better understanding of the different types of systems and the pollutants they address. The EPA has a super helpful Guide to Air Cleaners that’s a great place to start!