Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemical combinations involving carbon. Many household items, from cleaning supplies to hairspray, contain VOCs. These substances enter the air by a process known as off-gassing, which accounts for the smell of a newly installed carpet or disinfecting cleaner.
Some of the better-known VOCs include chemicals like acetone, chloroform, formaldehyde and benzene. Most people associate them with their smell — the pungent odours of nail polish remover, fresh paint and the new car scent. However, some compounds, such as ethylene glycol, the main component in antifreeze, have no odour at all.
VOC pollution can be five times higher inside your home than out of it. Almost everyone has experienced short-term exposure to these compounds, which cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and allergic reactions. The long term effects can lead to organ damage, neurological issues and cancer.
Avoiding VOCs entirely is nearly impossible. However, there are several steps you can take to mitigate their impact. By making small adjustments, you can improve your living environment and breathe more easily.
1. Buy Low-VOC Paint
Paint contains high levels of toxic compounds. Thankfully, there are many low- and no-VOC options. When you apply a fresh coat indoors, make sure the area is well-ventilated and wear the appropriate protective gear.
2. Buy Used Furniture
Most of us are familiar with the smell of new furniture. Off-gassing from these items can be particularly dangerous, since many products — those with manufactured wood, pressed fabrics, glues, etc. — contain high levels of formaldehyde. If you want quality furniture, check out antique stores, which tend to sell items made of more durable — and chemical-free — materials.
3. Examine Your Flooring
Of the 400 VOCs identified in homes, you can find more than 200 in carpets. Synthetic fibres like polyester are the biggest culprits, though finishes on wood floors can be dangerous, too. When you remodel, look for stains with low levels of these compounds, which tend to be water-based instead of composed of oil.
4. Get Some Houseplants
Houseplants are an easy and beautiful way to tackle indoor air pollution. According to experts, plants like the Peace Lily can absorb high levels of toxins from the air. Plus, rooms with greenery contain 60% less airborne mould and bacteria than those without.
5. Get A New Mattress
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do for your health. Unfortunately, most mattresses, especially those made of memory foam, can contain benzene, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and formaldehyde. The good news is that there are many non-toxic options on the market. Many come with green certifications that confirm they lack harmful materials.
6. Store Products Properly
Some household products with VOCs are a necessity. When it comes to items like aerosol spray and automotive fuel, be sure to store them separately and ensure you seal them tightly to prevent leaks. Pay attention to your thermostat, too, as chemicals are more likely to off-gas in climates with higher temperatures and humidity.
7. Clean Your Bathroom Cabinet
Personal care products and cosmetics can contain high levels of VOCs. Some of the more apparent offenders are hairspray and nail polish, but deodorant and body lotion can be problems, too. A recent study found that the chemicals in these items can emit as much air pollution as motor vehicles.
8. Open Your Windows
If you live in a climate with access to fresh outdoor air, try opening your windows when the weather allows. Not only does a breeze provide necessary ventilation, but it can also neutralize indoor pollutants. To maximize the airflow, place a fan on the windowsill.
9. Use Natural Cleaning Supplies
It might be time to ditch some of your cleansers and detergents. White vinegar is a powerful disinfectant that can kill salmonella, E. coli and bacteria strains that cause pneumonia. Combining it with castile soap makes a natural multi-purpose cleaner that is much cheaper than most products.
10. Ditch The Air Fresheners
Synthetic aerosol sprays can harm respiratory health. The danger with air fresheners is the high concentration of particles, and experts classified 25% of the ingredients as toxic or hazardous. If you want a great smell, instead opt for natural wax candles.
How To Rid Your Home Of VOCs
Volatile organic compounds are terrible for your health and can lead to long-term consequences. Unfortunately, they’re everywhere. To protect yourself and your family, follow the tips above.
Emily is a freelance writer, covering conservation and sustainability. You can read her blog, Conservation Folks, for more of her work.