Many indoor household products that we use, often to enhance our lives or clean our homes, such as cleaning supplies and furniture, contain potentially hazardous compounds called ‘volatile organic carbons’, also known as VOCs. Due to our dependence on these products, indoor air quality may actually be poorer than outdoor air quality. In fact, according to Minnesota Department of Health, VOC levels indoors is two to five times higher than the level of VOC levels outdoor.
What are VOCs?
VOCs are a large group of carbon-based volatile chemicals; what this means is they are molecules that contain carbon and easily evaporate at room temperature. This means they inhabit and linger in the air inside your home. Many VOCs have a distinctive odor, (this is why most cleaning products and paints have strong smells) which makes them easily detectable by the nose, but some of them have no smell; these are the ones that are more dangerous because you could be exposed to a high concentration of these odorless VOCs without you knowing about it.
Common household cleaning products contain high concentrations of VOCs that may harm your health
What are some common sources of VOCs?
Products that contain acetone, benzene, formaldehyde etc. are considered to be the primary sources of VOCs in households. Common household products such as paints, varnishes, solvents, air fresheners, cleaning and disinfecting materials, moth balls, fuel oil, gasoline, and even smoking contain VOCS and can lead to an increase in exposure to you and the people you are living with. Strong cleaning products may leave your kitchen and bathroom sparkling clean, but they dirty the air you breathe! It is imperative that you read about the household products that you are about to purchase; usually they have the product information pasted onto the container. This product information sheet usually tells the consumer what is the composition of the product. Try and buy products that contain lower amounts of VOCs. If the production information sheet is absent, which is highly unlikely, then do not buy the product!
What are the symptoms of VOC exposure?
Different VOCs can cause different symptoms, for acute exposure or exposure to a relatively large dose for a short period of time the symptoms are: eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness and worsening of asthma symptoms. Long term or chronic exposure can increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, kidney damage and central nervous system damage.
Carpets may trap VOCs, putting your young children and pets at risk of increased exposure
One of the most notorious among the VOCs is the aromatic carbon compound benzene. It is present in a wide range of household products including paint and other building materials. Thus, if you work in constructing homes made with building materials that contain high benzene content, you are confining yourself in a small area with high benzene content. Constant exposure to high levels of benzene can cause cancer according to WHO. The International Agency for Research on Cancer labeled benzene as a cause of acute myeloid leukemia. Thus, United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended that workers that are constantly exposed to benzene to undergo monthly blood counts as a preventive measure; if red blood cell counts falls below 4,000,000/mm3 or white blood cell counts falls below 4,000/mm3 they are immediately prevented from being further exposed.
Exposure to VOCs is known to trigger asthma symptoms, or cause throat, eye, and lung irritations
How can I reduce my exposure to VOCs in my home?
Since it’s not reasonable to simply never use cleaning products, paints, or buy furniture ever again, there are other simple measures that can be taken to reduce you and your family’s exposure to VOCs. Here are a few tips:
Open windows whenever using cleaning products to allow VOCs to ventilate out of your home
Open windows and do not remain in rooms with wet or fresh paint – paints give off many harmful VOCs!
If you or your children have asthma, try to use paint and cleaning products when they are not in the home
Don’t forget about your pets! Pets are also susceptible to the effects of VOC exposure. Try not to keep them in the same room when using paints or cleaning supplies
- ‘Off-gas’ your furniture before placing it in your home. This is done by placing new furniture, such as sofas, cabinets, shelves, beds, etc, outside or in the garage. This allows all the VOCs in the materials to evaporate into the atmosphere instead of into your home. For best results, let them off-gas for 7 days, but even 1 day can make a difference if you don’t have the time.