Indoor Air Quality and VOCs

Indoor air quality and VOCs have become a major concern. Because VOC’s (short for Volatile Organic Compounds) are a major contributor to poor indoor air quality.

And it should be a particular concern in the Natural Health and Healing community. After all, here we are, diligently doing our yoga, meditation and breathing exercises. But too many of us are blissfully unaware that our breathing may be compromised by the air quality in our home.

But going in, we need to acknowledge that, in this real world, we can’t totally remove VOCs from our lives. We can only limit our exposure to them. This involves the multi-pronged approach of, first understanding what VOCs are and how exposed we are. Next, how we can avoid or put limits on the VOCs we are exposed to. And, finally how we can best remove them.

What are volatile organic compounds

An organic compound, in chemistry, can be many of a huge number of compounds with a carbon base. These are compounds in which an atom or multiple atoms of carbon are linked covalently with atoms belonging to other elements. The more common of these are oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen.

Many of these compounds are “volatile at room temperature.” This means that they can easily vaporize from a liquid or solid state and pass into the air surrounding their source. This process is known as “off-gassing.”

Why are VOCs harmful to us?

First, we don’t want to be alarmists. VOCs are not universally harmful.

That said, we don’t want to minimize the problem either. As a general statement, VOCs are not good for us and we need to do our best to get rid of them or at least minimize their presence.

VOCs do have adverse effects on human health but to varying degrees. It depends on the underlying toxicity of the source material. Some VOCs are very toxic to humans. Others not so much. And the effect of many is unknown.

And then the actual extent of the harmful effects of VOCs is dependent not only on the material itself. It also depends on the length of time a person is exposed to it.

The effect also depends upon the sensitivity of the person exposed to the VOC in question. People who suffer from allergies, respiratory issues, asthma or sensitivity to specific chemicals are going to be more affected than others.

And young children and the elderly tend to be more susceptible than other populations.

Symptoms of VOC exposure

Symptoms of VOC exposure include respiratory irritation, eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, and sometimes memory or visual impairment. These symptoms can even be accompanied by nausea, vomiting or even nose bleeds.

There are also VOCs known to cause cancer in animals and are therefore likely to do this to humans too.

Higher concentrations of VOCs in the home

The EPA tells us that the concentration of VOCs in the home can be up to 10 times higher than outside. Actually, this should not come as a surprise, considering that the building envelope of the home traps the VOCs inside.

Many VOCs give off a definite smell. But a lot of them are odorless and therefore hard to detect. So it is a good idea to invest in an Indoor Air Quality monitor, like the Awair 2nd Edition Air Quality Monitor below. The one below will detect VOCs and more.

It will detect fine dust (Pm2.5), chemicals (VOCs), Co2, humidity, and temperature.

But, monitoring or not, it is important to know that to some degree, it is pretty much inevitable that VOCs are present in your home.

indoor air quality and vocs

Here is a good, short VOC explainer video:

What VOCs do I have in my home?

Many VOCs would be familiar to you, since many of them pretty much have household names. But that is not the main thing.

The overarching point is that, while the effect of individual, identifiable VOCs might be a known quantity, the cumulative effect of a cocktail of multiple VOCs on or health and safety is not.

There is no science on what effect VOCs have in the home as a group. And this should not be a surprise, considering that we have know idea exactly what VODs are present in any individual home at any one time.

VOCs found in the home

The  VOCs listed here, together with their source products, just by way of example of what might be found in your home. They are common but the list is by no means exhaustive.

Acetone: a solvent used in nail polish remover, furniture polish, paint remover, varnish, shop cleanup, particle board.

Ethanol: found in many cleaning products, such as laundry detergents, dishwasher detergents, glass cleaners, beer, liquor and wine.

Acetic acid: this is found in vinegar, which by itself is pretty safe since it only contains by volume 4% acetic acid.

Formaldehyde: this is very common. Contained is plastics. Also in wood products such as fiberboard, particle board, and plywood.

Dichloromethane: found in paint removers, flame retardants,and aerosols.

Carbon disulfide: in chlorinated tap water

Isopropanol: a solvent and disinfectant in common use.

1,3-Butadiene: found in resins, plastics, and synthetic rubber.

Benzene: found in drugs, detergents, dyes, synthetic fibers, and pesticides.

Toluene: contained in glues, paint thinners, nail polish, and stain removers.

Dichlorobenzene: found in deodorizers and mothballs.

Terpene: found in fragrant products like soap and laundry detergents.

Butanal: found in the emissions of burning candles, stoves, cigarettes and BBQs.

The point of making that list is to show you how pervasive VOCs are. If you have any of these products in your home, then you have VOCs.

You can find out more about VOCs and their potential effects on health at  the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

And this video explains more.

VOCs and the home environment

VOCs are just a fact of our modern lives. Let’s break it down further in the context of our living environment.

VOCs are in what we wear: they are in the solvents used in many phases of the processes for manufacturing clothes. This is especially so with synthetic fabrics. They are also present in the process of printing, dying, and washing natural fabrics like wools and cottons.

VOCs are used in building the homes we live in: VOC’s will off-gas from vinyl floors, linoleum, carpeting, upholstery fabrics, adhesives, sealing caulks, and composite wood products.

VOCs in personal care and home products: VOCs will off-gas from cosmetics, disinfectants, cleaning products, moth balls, air fresheners, and the gasoline in the cars in our garage.

VOCs generated by what we do: when we cook, use propane heaters, light a wood burning stove, store paints, use printers, and much more

VOCs coming in from outside the home: while VOCs outdoors are far less concentrated than indoors, we can bring VOCs into the home when we open the windows for ventilation. Some irony in that! VOCs are generated by vehicle exhausts.

So a home in a high traffic area is obviously going to be more affected than a farmhouse home.

And we can also bring in ozone pollution. VOCs from vehicle exhausts and other sources combine with nitrogen to produce ozone. You can look up ozone levels in your area at AirNow.gov.

How long does it take for VOCs to gas off?

The very volatile VOCs in things like the chemicals used in dry cleaning will completely off-gas in only a matter of hours. And those VOCs used in paint will mostly finish off-gassing in around 6 months.

But the VOCs used in some building materials, like the particle board in your kitchen cabinets and wall panels, will take 20 years or more to off-gas.

So this is a long lasting problem that we should take seriously.

VOC levels indoors

Indoor VOC levels are affected by a number of factors These include:

  • The actual quantity of VOCs in any given off-gassing product
  • The rate of emission of VOCs by these products
  • The air volume of an individual room
  • The total air volume of the home
  • The movement of air within the home
  • The infiltration of VOCs from the exterior of the home
  • The rate of ventilation

Given all these variables, it is as a practical matter impossible to know with accuracy what the VOC levels in our home actually are. This is so even with professional grade instrumentation. Let’s take a look.

How to measure VOC levels in the home

Consumer grade VOC detectors

Consumer grade VOC detectors are available at places like Amazon and are quite affordable. They will often come with the capability to detect carbon dioxide and air borne particulate matter. However, you get what you pay for and these devices, while very useful, are not super accurate and can’t be calibrated or serviced.

We have listed some of these below.

Professional grade VOC detectors

A professional air quality analyst will use a photoionization detector or PID. These devices can with pretty good accuracy tell you the total overall level of VOCs in the air. But they can’t identify the actual VOC components. It will, however, tell you if overall levels are high enough to warrant a laboratory analysis.

VOC Lab analysis

A VOC lab analysis can sample for hundreds of different VOCs but is very expensive and only warranted in the most extreme cases.

How to reduce VOC levels in the home

For our money, we would definitely recommend getting a VOC detector on Amazon just to see if there is a major problem. In fact, since they are inexpensive, I would get two (one as a check against the other).

And then we would set out to reduce VOC levels in the home in two ways.

First: we would try  to get rid of VOC emitting items where practicable. And by practicable I mean that we are not going to abandon our house and live in a cave somewhere.

Second: we would get devices that will remove or significantly reduce VOCs from the air in our home.

Reducing or eliminating VOC emitting materials

Avoid having or using off-gassing products

For example:

  • Not using aerosol deodorizers
  • Only bringing in cleaners, solvents and paints for immediate use.
  • Keeping lids tightly closed and storing these types of product in the garage
  • Where possible removing old VOC emitting products from the home.
  • Not smoking

Get VOCs out of your clothing

  • Don’t bring dry cleaning into the house without hanging it outside to off-gas first.
  • Wash clothes in eco-friendly, non-toxic laundry detergent.
  • Hang washing out to dry in sunlight the old fashioned way to let them off-gas.

Avoid VOCs in remodeling and construction

As we have seen, building materials are a significant part of the VOC picture. So, for example:

  • Use sealants that have “Low VOC” labels.
  • Make sure there is maximum ventilation when working on a project.
  • Store materials and new furniture off-site to give them a chance to off-gas
  • Use solid rather than engineered wood where possible.
  • If you must use engineered wood products, try to get them prefinished or take them outside to finish them.
  • Be aware that exterior grade engineered wood contains lower emitting VOCs
  • Use “low emitting” sealers

The Greenguard Certification

For all the materials and products you buy always look for “low VOC” or “no VOC” claims on the labeling. And where possible buy products with the Greenguard, or other low emissions certification. Look for this label:

indoor air quality and vocs

Maximize ventilation to reduce VOC concentrations

This is a subject we address in some detail in this related post on Indoor Air Quality. But here is a quick overview.

The overall goal is to regularly exchange the relatively polluted air within the home for the relatively unpolluted air outside the home.

This can be done in a number of ways including inserting air vents in the exterior of the home and having fresh make-up air brought in as part of the HVAC system. And it can be as simple as opening your windows.

Use an air purifier to remove VOCs along with other airborne pollutants. Take a look at these air purifiers:

AIRMEGA 400S The Smarter App Enabled Air Purifier
  • Coway Airmega 400S is designed to accommodate large room sizes up to 1, 560 square feet and cleans the air at least two times per hour when used as recommended.
  • Coway Airmega Max2 filter – combined activated carbon and True HEPA filter – captures and reduces up to 99.97% of particles 0.3 microns in the air, including pollen, pollutants and other allergens. It also reduces more than 99% of volatile organic compounds and reduces fumes such as NH3 and CH3CHO. It also includes washable and permanent pre-filter to catch larger dust particles.

AIRMEGA 400S

HomeLabs True HEPA H13 Filter Air Purifier
  • TRUE HEPA AIR PURIFIER – Our air purifier utilizes a True HEPA H13 to significantly improve indoor air quality by filtering out dust, pet dander, smoke, cooking odors and more. Perfect for kitchens, home offices, living rooms, kids’ play rooms, bathrooms and many other small to medium-sized spaces. It’s the real deal.
  • POWERFUL 3-STAGE FILTRATION – Includes a pre-filter, HEPA and activated carbon filter to effectively remove 99.97 % of the smallest particles in the air.

home labs air filter

Conclusion on indoor air quality and VOCs

As we have seen, there is no realistic way to entirely eliminate VOCs from our homes and lives, short of going to live on a desert island with no amenities. But there are things that we can do that will let us live with VOCs with enough confidence that we don’t need to worry about them.

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