You would never willingly decorate your home with toxic chemicals. You aren’t applying lead paint to the walls or spraying your carpets and window coverings with formaldehyde. After all, you want your home to be as safe and healthy as possible, so you can relax and enjoy time in your private space.
Yet, it is more than likely that your home already harbors an unhealthy amount of toxic compounds. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are gases emitted from certain materials, and a growing body of research indicates that VOCs have extremely negative health effects when they build up in interior spaces. Are you unknowingly decorating with VOCs, and is there anything you can do to reduce the VOCs in your home? Read on to find out.
Why VOCs Are Bad
VOCs are a class of gaseous compounds that pose some kind of danger to humans. Some VOCs are harmful in and of themselves; others can react with other gases to become dangerous air pollutants. Some examples of common VOCs include:
- Benzene. A hydrocarbon known to have harmful effects on bone marrow, resulting in anemia, leukemia and other deadly diseases.
- Methyl and methylene chloride. Volatile industrial compounds that affect the nervous system, causing dizziness, drowsiness, numbness and potentially loss of consciousness.
- Tetrachloroethylene. A chlorocarbon that can damage the liver and respiratory system.
- Toluene. A sweet-scented vapor that can cause euphoria, confusion, anxiety, insomnia and nerve damage.
- Xylene. A widely used hydrocarbon that depresses the central nervous system, causing headache, nausea, irritability and loss of coordination.
Though most VOCs in the home are present in low doses, they can cause severe eye, skin and respiratory irritation. Worse, prolonged exposure to VOCs exacerbates these issues and puts you at risk for the more serious health conditions, like cancer or nerve damage. Suffice it to say that you want to limit your interaction with VOCs as much as possible.
Where VOCs Come From
Most VOCs are incredibly useful industrial compounds that have unfortunately made their way into consumers’ homes. Some VOCs are used in consumer products as necessary ingredients while other VOCs remain on or in products after the manufacturing process. If you aren’t consciously striving to avoid VOCs, you are likely to find them coming from your:
- Indoor paint
- Furniture and mattresses
- Household adhesives
- Carpet and vinyl flooring
- Household cleaners and disinfectants
- Air fresheners
- Dry-cleaned clothing
- Printer ink
Because there are so many indoor sources of VOCs, research has found that rates of VOCs can be between 2 and 5 times higher indoors than background outdoor VOC levels. Worse, during activities that involve VOCs, like painting or cleaning, VOC levels can be as high as 1,000 times that of the outdoors. Unless a product listed above is marked as containing no VOCs, it is likely to off-gas VOCs into your home for an extended period of time, risking your health.
How to Reduce VOCs
Fortunately, more and more people are becoming concerned about indoor VOC levels, which means there are more VOC-free products available to consumers now than there were just a few years ago. If you are interested in ridding your home of VOCs, here is a step-by-step guide:
- Step 1: Increase ventilation. Because VOCs are gases, they can be removed from the home by opening windows and using fans to blow out old air and introduce fresh air. When performing activities that involve high VOCs, like painting or paint stripping, good ventilation is a must.
- Step 2: Replace old high-VOC products. Certain items in your home are easy to replace with low-VOC alternatives. For example, you can find natural, non-toxic mattresses, furniture pieces, flooring and more.
- Step 3: Avoid VOCs moving forward. You should look for labels that say low- or no VOCs, or you can replace VOC-laden products with alternative behaviors that don’t introduce any dangerous chemicals. For example, instead of using pesticides, you might use pest traps or grow pest-unfriendly plants around your home.
- Step 4: Follow manufacturer’s directions. When using products known to contain VOCs, you should always follow the directions on the label. This might mean finding a special storage space for the product, wearing face or hand coverings or relocating outside.
VOCs are dangerous, and you should strive to eliminate them if you want your home to be a safe and healthy space.