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Cheatsheet: volatile organic compounds
What are they?Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gasses that enter the air through the routine use of a wide variety of household products, from paints and pesticides to arts and crafts supplies. They include many different chemicals which aren't worth listing individually -- for the average home, it's best to deal with VOCs as a single potentially hazardous entity. Indoor levels of some VOCs average 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor levels, and they can shoot up to 1,000 times outdoor levels at times (for example, while a room is being painted).
Here's a partial list of the thousands of products which may release VOCs:
- paints, lacquers, varnishes and paint strippers
- household cleaning supplies
- building and upholstery materials
- copiers and printers
- certain cosmetic products, including nail polish remover
- permanent markers
- certain craft glues and adhesives
- certain dry-cleaning chemicals
- fuel and automobile emissions
What are the potential health effects?According to the EPA, immediate health effects include headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, loss of coordination, asthma exacerbation and nausea -- all of which may sound familiar to you from the last time you painted a bedroom, dyed your hair, or waxed the car. Possible longer-term effects include liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage, and cancer.
How can I minimize my exposure?
- Follow your nose. If something gives off a strong smell, it's likely releasing VOCs. Avoid using these products altogether, or, if you must...
- Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate. Throw open the windows, and the door if you can. Point a fan out the window to get those VOCs cycling out of the room, or turn on the exhaust fan if you've got one.
- Follow the instructions. If the packaging of a product tells you not to use it without proper ventilation, don't.
- Don't keep 'em around. Buy products known to release VOCs in small quantities, keep them tightly closed, and use them as quickly as possible.
- When possible, use low-VOC products. No-VOC paint contains less than 5 grams of VOCs per liter; low-VOC paint contains more, but still less than regular paint. Vinegar and baking soda are, as usual, a good alternative cleaner. Use water-based adhesives when possible. Ask your dry-cleaner about the solvents they use.
Where can I learn more?
- Treehugger's Green Basics: VOCs
- EPA: Volatile Organic Compounds
- Minnesota Department of Health: VOCs in your home
- Enviroblog: Breathing easier with Enviro-Paint
Original photo by Bree Bailey.