Cheatsheet: volatile organic compounds

An introduction to volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

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
  • pesticides
  • 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?

  1. Follow your nose. If something gives off a strong smell, it's likely releasing VOCs. Avoid using these products altogether, or, if you must...
  2. 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.
  3. Follow the instructions. If the packaging of a product tells you not to use it without proper ventilation, don't.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Questions? Comments? Leave 'em here!

Original photo by Bree Bailey.

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