Volatile Organic Compounds...When "organic" isn't a good thing

I am so excited to kick off our Healthy Home-Healthy Life blog series today!  Today is the last day of April (not quite sure HOW that happened already) and May just so happens to be National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month which means this is the perfect time to start learning about how your home can affect your respiratory health (sorry, I’ll make it cheerful, I promise!)  To get things started, I’m going to explain what VOCs are and where they are lurking in your home.    

What are VOCs?

VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds are chemicals that off-gas from common interior elements such as paints, carpet and upholstery.  You may be familiar with some of them, such as formaldehyde, benzene, ethylene glycol, and methylene chloride just to name a few.   According to the EPA, “Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors”.  With up to 90% of our time being spent indoors, it certainly raises some concern.  Benzene and Formaldehyde have both been classified as human carcinogens and yet people typically don’t check to see if these are in their own homes.  I’m just as guilty of this, and in fact, the reason I wanted to start this blog was so that I could learn more about these solutions for my own home, in addition to my client’s homes. 

Where are they coming from?

1-     Household finishes.  This includes paint, carpet, laminate flooring, caulk, varnishes, adhesives (including those found in compound wood products such as particleboard or MDF)

2-     Furniture.  Yep, this is the one that shocks and scares me the most (I write this in guilty terror as I sit curled up on my new sectional).  Sofas, chairs, mattresses, and even wooden furniture that has been made with particleboard or other composite materials (think IKEA) all release VOCs into the air that you breathe every day. 

3-     Cleaning Products.  Ever spend the day cleaning your home until it sparkles only to find yourself with a splitting headache?  VOCs may be the culprit.  In addition to spray cleaning agents, air fresheners and dryer sheets have also been found to release these toxic chemicals.

How do VOCs affect us?

Studies have shown that asthma sufferers can expect symptoms to be worsened if they’ve been exposed to VOCs.  You know how hot, muggy summer days can exacerbate asthma symptoms?  You guessed it, VOCs are to blame.  In hot, humid conditions, these chemicals react with the sun and high temperatures and create smog, making breathing conditions much less than ideal.  The same thing happens if there is not proper ventilation inside and you breathe in these stagnant compounds over time.  Even if you do not have asthma, you can still suffer from short-term and long-term health effects due to exposure.  Headaches, dizziness and fatigue are some of the more common symptoms, but over time these can even develop into damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

What can you do about them?

Now that I’ve panicked you (sorry!!) here comes the cheerful part.  There are things that you can do to minimize the amount of VOCs you bring into your home, and reduce the amount from the items you can’t get rid of (because let’s be real, I’m not about to get rid of my new sectional, so you better believe I’m going to find a way to purify the air instead.)

The first thing you can do is be more conscious about what is in the products and furnishings that you use.  I’m hoping to help with this by diving into more detail over the next few weeks.  For example, zero-VOC paint can be used, or wool-carpet which contains drastically fewer VOCs than standard carpeting.  Once you’ve reduced the amount of VOCs being brought into your home, you should ensure that your home has proper ventilation and humidity levels.  If that’s not enough, you can bring in natural air purifiers, like plants.  Houseplants will drastically improve the quality of air in your home and let’s be honest, they’ll make it look beautiful too!

What's next?

In the coming blog posts, I’ll reveal what to look for when selecting new finishes, furniture, accessories, cleaning supplies, plants, you name it.  For now, take a deep breath (maybe outside?) and know that you are now one step closer to a healthy life because you are aware of a problem that is only just beginning to cross the stream of consciousness in the average consumer.


‘til next week!