Household Products with VOCs – Are Volatile Organic Compounds Safe?

Volatile organic compounds or VOCs are all around us. They are both man made and naturally occurring. They are organic compounds that have low boiling points and thus off-gas easily. Because they off-gas easily they are readily inhaled by people and enter their bloodstream.

Generally speaking outdoor levels of VOCs are comparatively low and not a problem. Indoors, however, air circulation can be limited and VOCs can build up in concentration to such a point where their health effects cannot be considered negligible. This is the reason for ‘sick building syndrome’ more often than not. Bad air circulation in combination with lots of office products off-gassing VOCs make people feel sick.

There are thousands of VOCs but some of the most common and infamous are formaldehyde, toluene, benzene, ethyl alcohol, butane, kerosene, acetone and methylene chloride. These are found in a wide variety of frequently used home, garden and office products. If exposed to high levels of these VOCs for just a few hours the effects are noticeable. The symptoms normally involve dizziness, eye and throat irritation and difficulty breathing. Because VOCs are breathed in the first thing they attack is the respiratory system.

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In the longer term it is hard to definitively say what the exact effects are. It depends on concentrations and other variables. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency has linked the above mentioned VOCs with cancer, kidney failure, liver problems and brain damage to small children.

You will be shocked to discover the number of household products with VOCs. Nearly anything with a solvent that has a strong smell probably contains VOCs. For example perfume, cologne, paint, furniture polish, stain remover, leather cleaner, nail polish, moth balls, air fresheners, plywood, dry cleaned clothes, upholstered furniture, new carpet and copier ink are all likely to contain VOCs.  There are other eco-friendly home decorating products that don’t rely on these volatile compounds.

VOCs derived from petroleum products are cheap and effective solvents that are used by many products. If you don’t want to take the risk with your own and your family’s health than put up a list of house products containing VOCs on your bulletin board and as you use products check the labels against your list for what they contain. If you find a product containing VOCs put it in the garage, away from the most habituated places in the house and when you next go shopping try and source a low VOC or zero VOC alternative. For new furniture and carpeting you should consider letting a lot of the VOC containing adhesive to off-gas for a week or so in the garage before you bring them in your house.  Also, there are now many brands offering low VOC paints at the large home improvement warehouses.  If paint is not your thing, then there are green wallpaper and clay plaster wall treatment choices, too.

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