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VOCs: what you need to know

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) have been getting a lot of attention lately.

At the local home center, you may have noticed a lot more low or no VOC proclamations. It seems that the seal on VOCs has officially be broken, and the discussion on what they are, where they are used and why we should avoid them is now on.

VOCs often get emitted into the air as the paint (or varnish, or adhesive, or cleaning product etc.) dries and are at their most potent during and shortly after application. Essentially, VOCs are gases that are emitted from certain liquids and solids and can be harmful to health to varying degrees.

In fact, hundreds – if not thousands – of products emit VOCs. Common cleaning, decorating, disinfecting, cosmetic and hobby products can all be counted among the culprits, explaining why the concentration of VOCs is up to ten times higher indoors than out. During certain activities, such as paint stripping, the indoor levels may be up to 1000x outdoor background levels.

Paints, paint stripped and other solvents may have got a lot of attention for VOC release lately, but other products to be aware of include items as diverse as nail varnish, hair dye, aerosol sprays, wood preservatives, glue, permanent marker, office printers and copiers, carpet, flooring and dry cleaned clothing. Even common air freshers release high amounts of VOCs.

Should we be panicking about VOCs?

It is hard to imagine sleeping in a freshly painted room with the windows closed without suffering at least some degree of malaise.

The immediate health effects of limited VOC exposure may include skin, eye or throat irritation, nausea, headache, dizziness and fatigue, visual disorders and skin reaction. Effects of more severe and/or prolonged exposure include damage to liver, kidneys and central nervous system,allergies, respiratory problems and, possibly, cancer.

As with all polluting substances, there are a number of factors affecting risk levels. Considerations such as age and length and intensity of exposure greatly affect the degree of impact. Painting interiors is, for example, frequently not recommended if living with newborns or young infants, due to increased risk of respiratory problems.

Limiting the risk

  • Ventilate the room when using products containing VOCs.
  • If possible, vacate the house when renovating expensively with paint, varnish etc. to allow the chemicals to settle for 2-3 days, when exposure would be the greatest.
  • Gases can leak even from closed containers. Dispose of half-full or empty containers or unnecessary chemicals in accordance with local toxic household waste procedures.
  • Store spare chemicals in a well-ventilated space and away from any possibility of contact with children.
  • Wear a fume mask when doing household renovating work.
  • Don’t expose skin when taking on household repairs. Wear long pants and sleeved tops, use gloves and, if necessary, wear a hair cover.
  • Where possible, go chemical-free. Ask yourself if VOC exposure is necessary or if you are happy to go with alternatives – e.g. fitting a VOC cocktail of plywood, underlay and carpet flooring versus simple natural hardwood flooring.
  • Use water-based, low or no VOC paints and decorating materials.
  • Avoid using synthetic air fresheners in the car or home.
  • Clean green.
  • Read warning and hazard labels. If a product comes with a toxicity warning to marine life, for example, are you sure you want it in your home?

Further Reading:

Indoor Air Pollution: An Introduction for Health Professionals

Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality

Tox Town: Volatile Organic Compounds

Greenguard Air Quality

Envirovent: What are VOCs?