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VOCs & Indoor Air Quality

Jul 3, 2008
VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are a major concern for indoor air pollution. The EPA estimates levels of some common pollutants to be 2-5 times higher inside homes than out. If you've ever shopped for an air purifier, you've probably heard of these chemicals. But do you know what they are? This article is going to tell you a little bit about VOCs: what they are, where they come from, and how to get rid of them.

What is a VOC, anyway?

VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. The "organic" part means they contain carbon, and "volatile" means they evaporate easily at room temperature. VOCs are chemicals like benzene, toluene, methylene, chloride, formaldehyde, and many others. According to the EPA, exposure to VOCs can cause symptoms like nose and throat discomfort, allergic skin reactions, headaches, asthma attacks, and nausea. In high enough exposures, they can cause more serious health problems.

Where do VOCs come from?

VOCs are found in a wide variety of household products. Just look under the kitchen or bathroom sink and you will probably find many substances which emit some kind of VOC. VOCs are found in products as ubiquitous as paints, varnishes, cleaning supplies, new carpets and furniture, fragrances and air fresheners, glues and adhesives, disinfectants, and other sources. Now you can see why VOCs are found in such greater concentrations inside the house.

So how can VOCs be avoided?

Obviously, VOCs cannot be removed from the home completely - they are simply a part of modern life. However, there are several steps you can take to reduce your exposure to safer and healthier levels.

To cut down on VOC exposure:

Limit your use of air fresheners, fabric conditioners, window cleaning fluids, sprays and aerosols, and dry cleaning.

Avoid using pesticides inside the house.

Look for products without fragrances or dyes, or products for sensitive skin.

When painting, look for paints that are labeled "low-VOC" and try to use water-based paints and sealants.

Don't mix household care or cleaning products unless directed on the label.

Ventilate well while using paint or paint strippers, harsh cleaners, and anything else that's smelly. Briefly throwing open a window while using the product can keep concentrations from building up.

If you have unused containers of these products sitting around, throw them away - even closed containers can leak gases. Make sure you dispose of them safely; you can check with your city or county for household hazardous waste collection sites.

For products you only use occasionally or seasonally, buy in a small quantity that you will use right away.

Let new furniture or furnishings air out for a while before bringing them into the home, or ensure that the room they will be in is properly ventilated.

Removing dust can help reduce exposure, as dust is a great absorbent for VOCs. Use a pleated filter in your furnace, or run an air purifier.

Air purifiers with specially blended carbon filters can remove VOCs from the air.
About the Author
Scott Smith is an expert on indoor air quality and air purifiers at achooallergy.com.
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