Your sofa may slowly be poisoning you, your wallpaper could be making you cough, and your carpet might be the source of your sniffles. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are polluting your indoor air quality, and it is likely that you have never even noticed, or known exactly what is going on in the air space inside your home.
What Are VOCs?
Thousands and thousands of household products emit VOCs, which are gases that damage the environment and may have serious adverse effects on your short- and long-term health. These carbon-based chemicals have a high vapor pressure, which means that at room temperature, their molecules evaporate out of the product and into the very air that you breathe.
Carpet, furniture, office equipment, wall coverings, glue, paint, caulk, solvents and even markers may emit VOCs. One well-known VOC is formaldehyde, which sublimates into the air out of household paint and is a known carcinogen. The VOC benzene is found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust, and chlorofluorocarbons are another type of VOC that has been banned or highly regulated around the world. Thanks to VOCs, indoor air quality is often poorer than outdoor air quality, even in smoggy cities like Los Angeles.
However, there are many, many types of VOCs – thousands – and the compounding health effects of these chemicals are largely unknown. The nose-tweaking smell of household rugs sold at a discount department store comes from VOCs. One big whiff of a newly minted carpet can cause immediate lung problems for those with any kind of respiratory distress or sensitivity.
VOCs are also associated with allergic and immune effects, especially for infants, children, expecting mothers, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. For sensitive individuals, being immersed in an environment of VOCs can cause headaches, eye and respiratory tract irritation, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and damage to the kidneys, liver and central nervous system.
Long-term effects of a life saturated in VOCs are hard to determine, however, as symptoms are slow to develop and difficult to pinpoint. Because of this, VOCs are still very widely used in a wide majority of home furnishings. Some VOCs are easily recognizable by their odor, such as those on many carpets and the beloved “new car smell.” That said, not all VOCs have an aroma. Use the following tips to reduce the effect of VOCs on your body.
How to Avoid VOCs
- Learn to recognize the sharp chemical odor emitted by some VOCs so that you can avoid it whenever possible.
- Shop for new home furnishings that are free of VOCs. If consumers demand chemical-free carpets and furniture, the market will shift to create a supply. Let your furniture retailer know that you are interested in these products even if they aren’t currently available.
- Choose natural flooring such as rugs made of wool, silk, sisal or cotton. Ceramic tile and linoleum are also nontoxic, as well as flooring made from cork, bamboo or recycled glass. If you have a young child that spends a great deal of time at ground level, it is essential that you provide a healthy surface for their growing bodies to play on.
- Use only natural cleaning products.
- Choose thin carpet without much “shag,” and avoid installing it in damp areas such as the bathroom.
- Make sure that your home or office is well ventilated. Open windows, run fans and decorate with flora that cleans the air such as ferns, aloe vera and spider plants.
- Repainting your house? Choose VOC-free house paint and breathe easy.
- Shop for secondhand furniture. New furniture gives off the most VOCs.
- Avoid vinyl wall coverings, upholstery and flooring altogether, and make sure that your shower curtain is free of PVC (polyvinyl chloride, another VOC).