VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, are chemicals from liquids and solids that vaporize at room temperature and enter the atmosphere (a phenomenon known as “outgassing” or “offgassing”). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found concentrations of VOCs in indoor air to be 2 to 5 times greater than in outdoor air, and they can shoot up to a 1,000 times higher at times (for example, while a room is being painted). VOCs are an important factor in indoor air quality issues such as sick building syndrome. The EPA reports health effects from VOCs including “eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system... Some VOCs are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.” Some of these symptoms are probably familiar to anyone who has painted a room or dyed their hair in an enclosed space.
Scientists are beginning to find evidence that prolonged or intense exposure to VOCs can impact our immune systems and lead to allergies and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).
Common indoor sources of VOCs include paint thinners, wood preservatives, adhesives, detergents, pesticides, dry cleaning solvents, and tobacco smoke. VOCs can be generated from fabric, upholstery, carpets, furniture, photocopiers, and printers. One prominent irritant is formaldehyde, which is found in high concentrations in adhesives used to bind building materials such as plywood, particle board, and most fiberboards such as MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). You’ll generally find a lot of formaldehyde in wall coverings and “wood” furnishings which aren’t made from solid wood (e.g., furniture, cabinetry, shelving, and laminated countertops). Formaldehyde also often evaporates from paints, varnishes, chemicals used for sealing and finishing walls, insulation, and interior fabrics.
To avoid VOCs, consider the following steps:
- when painting, choose zero- or low-VOC paints, stains, and strippers
- use zero- or low-VOC sealers, waxes, and adhesives
- opt for solid wood furniture when possible; avoid items made of particle board or MDF
- choose natural, untreated fibers for window treatments, upholstery, rugs, and carpets
- use natural, non-toxic cleaning supplies
- for new construction, minimize the use of products containing formaldehyde or other harmful VOCs
- if possible, make sure your home’s and office’s interior spaces are well-ventilated (especially when painting or working with any chemicals)
- if there is a "green dry cleaner" in your area, use it – the EPA maintains a PDF listing of dry cleaners that do not use perchloroethylene (if you're in the Charleston area, check out Americlean in North Charleston); otherwise, air out dry cleaned clothes before returning them to your closet
The VOCs emanating from a product dissipate over time as the chemicals vaporize. VOCs from paint dissipate fairly quickly with most offgassing occuring during the first 6 months after application. Other sources, such as particle board may continue to offgas for 20 years or more. If you already have products in your home with high concentrations of VOCs such as cabinetry made with MDF or particle board, you may want to use a sealer to minimize the amount of VOCs entering your interior atmosphere. Air purifiers can also help to eliminate VOCs inside your home.