Our homes are filled with decor and products designed with an array of bright, plush, sleek, sophisticated and colorful exteriors. But how much do we know about their composition?
Not visible to the eye, many items in our homes contain dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They are emitted as gases and may cause headaches, eye and respiratory tract irritation, central nervous system damage, and even cancer. Considering that we spend 90 percent of our days indoors, knowing what VOCs are, how to identify them, and, above all else, how to protect against them is essential.
What Are VOCs?
The Environmental Protection Agency defines VOCs as organic chemicals that are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. This emission is referred to as off-gassing. “VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors,” states the agency.
The products that contain VOCs include building materials, cleaners, paints, personal care products, dry-cleaned clothing, various hobby supplies, fuels and automotive products, air fresheners, office equipment such as copiers and printers, and permanent markers, just to give a few examples of the wide array of products that is counted in thousands.
At any one point in time, there may be anywhere from fifty to hundreds of individual VOCs in indoor air, and the risk of health effects from inhaling them depends on the content level of VOCs in the air, the length of exposure, and the exposure frequency.
How to Detect the Presence of VOCs?
High levels of VOCs in the air are often detectable by smell, but there are many VOCs that have no odor at all. In other words: just because you can’t smell anything doesn’t mean there aren’t any VOCs present.
VOCs that can be detected by smell include:
- 1-butanol: artificial flavorant present in many foods and beverages.
- 2-heptanone: food additive permitted for direct addition to food for human consumption.
- toluene: a colorless, water-insoluble liquid with the smell associated with paint thinners.
- formaldehyde: an important precursor to many other materials and chemical compounds.
- ethyl propanoate: used in perfumery and fragrance.
- ethyl heptanoate: used in the flavor industry because of its odor that is similar to grape.
Some of the most common VOCs that CAN’T be detected by smell are:
- Bisphenol A (BPA): a starting material for the synthesis of plastics.
- DBP (dibutyl phthalate): a colorless oil commonly used as a plasticizer.
- BBzP (benzyl butyl phthalate): commonly used as a plasticizer for vinyl foams.
- DiDP (diisodecyl phthalate): used in the production of plastic and plastic coating to increase flexibility.
- DMP (dimethyl phthalate): used as an insect repellent for mosquitoes and flies.
- DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate): used as a plasticizer for many resins and elastomers.
While there are scientific machines that accurately measure even minuscule concentrations of VOCs, such machines are prohibitively expensive for regular home users, and professional air quality monitoring services are also costly, not to mention their limited availability.
Consumer-grade air quality sensors can reliably detect only large concentrations of VOCs, and they are limited only to the most common chemicals. Since VOCs are so hard to detect, prevention is the best strategy how to protect against them.
How to Reduce the Exposure to VOCs?
To reduce your exposure to VOCs, you should avoid products that contain high quantities of them. In particular, avoid the chemicals listed on the Proposition 65 list. The list contains a wide range of naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals that are known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm, including additives or ingredients in pesticides, common household products, food, drugs, dyes, or solvents.
Next, increase ventilation in your house as much as possible to lower the concentration of VOCs. This is especially important if new carpeting or flooring has been installed, or if you’ve just painted the walls.
Of course, not everyone lives in a climate that makes it possible to ventilate year-round, and that’s where good quality air purifiers come in. With a good air purifier, you can keep the temperature and humidity low, which slows down and sometimes even completely stops off-gassing. Most high-quality air purifiers also contain particle filters that remove contaminants from the air, helping you create healthier indoor air and prevent many health conditions caused by VOCs.
While HEPA air filters trap molecular particles, they cannot trap molecular gasses. These noxious chemicals can be adsorbed by active carbon filters or eliminated by air purifiers using nanotechnology, such as cold-catalyst filters.
VOCs are dangerous chemicals found in most modern houses and apartments, and knowing how to protect against them is essential. A good quality air purifier can go a long way simply by keeping the temperature and humidity under control.