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What Are VOCs? (Volatile Organic Compounds)

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What Are VOCs? (Volatile Organic Compounds)

By Ruth MacEachern

Product Manager

Apr 18, 2016

What are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are compounds that easily become vapours or gases. VOCs are released from burning fuel such as gasoline, wood, coal, or natural gas. They are also released from many consumer products such as; cigarettes and solvents. 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a group of carbon-based chemicals which evaporate easily at room temperature. VOCs are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure. We use thousands of these chemicals in products we have around the home, and while some of them have an odour, others have no smell. Some are also created biologically by plants, including some moulds found around the home.

Some of the most common VOCs include benzene, acetone, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, perchloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene. They can be found in paints, solvents, upholstery fabrics, carpets and adhesives, varnishes, vinyl floors, cleaning chemicals, air fresheners, cosmetics, fuel oil, and moth balls. They can be produced by dry cleaning, cooking, smoking, using some non-electric space heaters, photocopying or printing, using wood burners, and from electronic devices, stored paints and chemicals. At any one time, there could be from 50 to hundreds of individual VOCs in the air.

Good ventilation is vital to combat Volatile Organic Compounds

If you have asthma or another respiratory condition, young children, or an elderly person in the house, you should find out about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are the groups of people who are potentially susceptible to the effects of VOCs in the home.

Scientists say short-term exposure to high levels of the compounds can cause symptoms like eye nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and the worsening of asthma symptoms. Long-term, chronic exposure at high levels can cause an increased risk of liver damage, kidney damage, cancer, and central nervous system damage, scientific studies suggest.

How much should we be worried about them?

Studies have shown that any risk to health depends on the concentration - how much of VOCs are in the air we breathe, and how often we breathe them in.

Research shows the level of VOCs indoors is two to five times higher than the level outdoors. What we need to look at is how much of these compounds are being released, and how quickly, the volume of air in the room or building affected, how much ventilation that room or building has, and what the concentration of VOCs is outdoors.

Scientists say that breathing low levels of the compounds for long periods may increase some people’s risks of problems, particularly if they already have underlying respiratory conditions like asthma. Several studies have been conducted which suggest exposure to VOCs may worsen asthma symptoms.

What can you do about them?

Limit your exposure to them. Check what’s contained in your cleaning products in the list of chemical ingredients, for example. Switch to those without VOCs, perhaps choosing plant-based cleaners or organic products. Other sources may include household furnishings which tend to give off more VOC’s when they are new, carpet, furniture, paint, plastics or electronic devices. Wash new cushion covers and throws. If you have a new sofa or carpet in a room, ventilate the room well. 

Could you store paint outside the house in a shed or garage? Take unused chemicals to a household hazardous waste site and dispose of them. Don’t buy large amounts of chemicals which will sit around the house unused in the future. When buying furniture, remember that solid wood items with low-emitting finishes are good options to reduce the concentration of compounds in your home, and seek out products with low VOC emissions. Research airtight sealers – when buying composite wood products, choose a non-toxic sealant to reduce exposure. Ensure your home doesn’t suffer from mould problems – remove it and work to solve its causes by improving ventilation and reducing condensation.

Reduce the risks in your home office

One of the ways VOCs are released is by printing and photocopying. If you have a home office, take an audit of how big it is, how well ventilated it is, and how often you print or photocopy. Many home offices are in small rooms, some without proper ventilation, and home workers spend the vast majority of their day in those rooms. If you spend a lot of time in your home office, consider moving your printer and photocopier elsewhere, somewhere that has more ventilation.

Remember the risks on wash days

Washing clothes gives off VOCs like benzene and acetaldehyde. On wash days, ensure your kitchen, utility room or laundry room is well ventilated, and dry washing outside whenever possible. If washing is drying indoors, open the windows in the room where this is happening.

Reduce the risks in the kitchen and lounge

Cooking can give off VOC emissions, so remember to use your extractor fan, and open windows and doors. If you have a wood burning stove, ensure your chimney is cleaned regularly and consider lining it to ensure emissions into your lounge are limited.

Make your bedroom a low-emission oasis

You spend a lot of your time in your bedroom. Ensure your bedding is aired after being washed to reduce emissions, choose natural wood with non-toxic sealants for your furniture, remove as many electronic devices as you can while you sleep, and ensure the room is ventilated well to reduce condensation and prevent mould forming.

The key message is this: ventilate your home well. Open doors and windows, use fans, and bring in air from the outside as much as you can. Keep your home’s temperature and humidity as low as is comfortable, as the compounds evaporate more at higher temperatures. Ventilate well when you’re painting, varnishing, or having other building work done around the house.

Continuous ventilation is the best way of dealing with VOCs. Try our Positive Input Ventilation range which provide the ideal tool to ventilate your home well. These are whole house ventilation units which are energy-efficient and designed to control condensation within homes with a loft space. The units draw in fresh air from outside, filter it, ventilate the home from a central position on the landing in a house or the central hallway in a bungalow, and use the increased solar heat in a loft space to help reduce its power costs. They help spread warm air evenly throughout your home, without the need for opening windows. That helps reduce your heating costs, and is a boon in winter when opening windows means expensive energy loss.

Positive input ventilation can greatly improve indoor air quality, and help improve the health of asthma sufferers. It’s worth noting that if your home has particularly large rooms, or some which are remote, you may also need to use fans.