Indoor air quality is one of the most integral components of wellness. Since we spend the majority of our time indoors, we need to be sure that we are breathing healthy air in our home, workplace, and school. Now more than ever, clean air is essential.
Despite their significance, many facets of indoor air quality don’t receive the attention they deserve, and some indoor air pollutants can seem quite inscrutable. One group of air pollutants we receive many questions about are VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. The sheer diversity within this group of indoor pollutants can be daunting, so we decided to tackle these tricky pollutants in this article.
Understanding VOCs: What You Need To Know About Volatile Organic Compounds
What Are VOCs?
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a group of compounds with high vapor pressure and low water solubility. In other words, these substances won’t easily bind to themselves (volatile) or dissolve in water (organic). Inside your home, volatile organic compounds are harmful, carcinogenic air pollutants that evaporate at normal indoor atmospheric conditions.
Much like particulate matter, the term “VOC” doesn’t refer to a specific substance; instead, it refers to a group of substances that exhibit similar chemical properties. There are thousands of these substances, with some examples including:
- Ethylene glycol
- Methylene chloride
When measuring the amount of VOCs in your home, you will often come across the term TVOC, or total volatile organic compounds. Just what does TVOC stand for?
Why TVOC is difficult to define
Because there are so many VOCs, it’s impossible to monitor all of them continuously. Thus, a measurement known as TVOC was adopted to measure the overall amount of VOCs in a given space.
Total volatile organic compounds (TVOC) is a group of VOCs used to represent the entire pool of pollutants. If you have an air quality monitor with volatile organic compound detection capabilities, you will see your readings in terms of TVOC.
Unfortunately, TVOC isn’t uniformly defined. Many standards include different VOCs in their TVOC grouping, or assign different weights when calculating TVOC. This can make the definition of TVOC difficult to parse, as we can’t say definitively what VOCs are in TVOC.
For example, one scientist may use a grouping of 20 VOCs to define TVOC, while another may draw from 30 different VOCs. Because there isn’t a standardized interpretation of TVOC, there are many TVOC definitions in use. For more information on the unique challenge of defining TVOC, check out our article: Defining TVOC: Why TVOC Is So Difficult To Explain.
Where Do VOCs Come From?
Volatile organic compounds can come from an array of sources, including human-made and natural sources. Because manufacturers utilize VOCs as inorganic solvents, the majority of indoor VOCs come from everyday household staples, including:
- Paints and solvents
- Cleaners and disinfectants
- Air fresheners
VOCs aren’t only found in sprays and aerosols. Many products, such as glue, new furniture and carpets, construction materials, electronic devices, and plywood produce VOCs through off-gassing. New construction and home renovation can present a significant health concern for this reason; until the off-gassing of new products declines, your home will trap these released VOCs and could harm you and your family.
Household products are not the only source of VOCs; our own bodies produce VOCs as well. Often far less dangerous than industrial compounds, bioeffluents released by humans can trigger responses by our own body and others.
While many people think of VOCs as solely an indoor pollutant, outdoor VOC levels are also a concern, but for different reasons. Outdoor VOC levels, except for levels near industrial zones, are safe for us to breathe, but VOCs can contribute to other forms of pollution such as photochemical smog.
Are All VOCs Harmful?
Because of the sheer number of VOCs, it is natural to ask: are all VOCs harmful?
Some VOCs are very harmful, like formaldehyde and benzene. These are present in glues and paints and are often found in cigarettes, vehicle emissions, appliances, cleaning products, furniture, carpeting, and personal products. We really need to watch out for these, as benzene is a known human carcinogen, and formaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen.
Other volatile organic compounds are far less harmful, often originating from natural sources. For example, plants use their own VOCs to interact with their environments, and these gases are by and large harmless to humans.
However, some studies show that even natural sources of VOCs, like human bioeffluents, can cause a higher cortisol response for a prolonged period of time. While there isn’t any research indicating that these cause long-term harm, we know that they can still cause a stress response to the body.
Because VOCs are a group of organic compounds that includes both natural and human-made carcinogenic pollutants, it is sometimes difficult to clearly determine if the source is harmful. In short, there are some harmful VOCs and some relatively harmless VOCs, but it is best to limit exposure to these gases.
What Are the Health Effects of VOCs?
As we discussed above, some VOCs are quite harmful, while others pose less of a threat. In general, some symptoms to look out for are:
- Eye, nose, and throat irritation
- Headaches and nausea
- Loss of coordination
- Allergic skin reactions
These all point to exposure to VOCs, and recognizing the signs can help alert you to their presence. Long-term exposure or exposure in large doses can be detrimental to our health, with volatile organic compounds capable of damaging our kidneys, liver, and nervous system, as well as causing cancer.
Furthermore, a more nebulous concern of indoor VOCs is sick building syndrome, or SBS. As a general term used to describe nonspecific symptoms that occur to occupants of a building, SBS is a relatively new medical condition closely tied to indoor TVOC levels. SBS cases can be mild or severe, and we aren’t yet sure of its exact causes.
What we do know, though, is that indoor air quality plays a critical role in developing sick building syndrome. So, to ensure occupant health, we need to ensure VOCs aren’t getting trapped in our home or offices.
Actionable Methods To Protect Against VOCs
Because of the impact of VOCs on our bodies, we need to limit our exposure. But how do we do this?
Purchase safer alternatives
As with any pollutant, removing the source is the best way to eliminate volatile organic compounds from your home. Many products nowadays have low-VOC versions available. Purchasing these safer alternatives will cut down the quantity of VOCs in your, especially dangerous ones like benzene, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride.
Don’t allow smoking indoors
Along the same lines as the above recommendation, limit the amount of smoking in and around your home to breathe healthier air.
Even if you’re not the one smoking, second-hand smoke carries many air pollutants, like VOCs. At the very least, open some windows to let the smoke out; this will not completely protect you and others, but it will cut down how much pollution is floating in your home.
Amp up ventilation
One of the biggest reasons VOCs can build up in your home is because of a lack of ventilation. Volatile organic compounds are emitted directly into our home from everyday products, so they’ll get stuck inside unless they are diluted with fresh air or removed.
Opening windows and increasing fresh air intake will help release VOC-laden air and take in fresh air, lowering the TVOC level in your home.
Use household products only as directed
Many products that contain volatile organic compounds carry safety warning labels and detailed instructions for use. It is crucial to follow these instructions, as mixing chemicals, storing them improperly, or utilizing them without proper safety precautions can be highly dangerous, or even deadly.
Before using any chemical products, such as cleaners, paint, paint strippers, or other solvents, carefully read all warning labels and directions and follow them strictly.
Identify VOCs with an air quality monitor
While taking steps like reading product directions and opening windows can help limit the amount of volatile organic compounds in your home, you can never really be sure you’re safe without an air quality monitor. After all, most of these chemicals are invisible, and some are odorless.
With an air quality monitor, you can spot trends in your TVOC readings and even discover potential sources of VOCs. For example, TVOC readings often increase sharply during cooking; many cooking sprays and heated oils will produce VOCs. With an air quality monitor, you will know when it is best to vent out VOCs and which products in your home contribute to dangerous TVOC levels.
Safe storage is indispensable
VOC off-gassing is often passive; you don’t even need to use the products for them to produce tremendous quantities of volatile organic compounds. For example, recently dry-cleaned clothing can produce perchloroethylene, a probable human carcinogen. Until the strong smell goes away, consider storing these clothes outside, or leave them at the dry cleaners until the smell goes away.
Like dry cleaning, new furniture and carpet can off-gas dangerous VOCs. It’s best to store these items outside until they are safe for your home, or you will be exposing your household to high levels of TVOC.
We hope you found our breakdown of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) useful! For more information about VOCs and how they fit into overall indoor air quality, check out our indoor air quality guide below: