Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Making You Sick?

You can’t talk about Indoor Air Quality without mentioning the effects of VOCs.

VOC is an acronym for Volatile Organic Compounds, which are “carbon-containing organic chemicals present in indoor air” (Introduction to VOCs and Health). And they’re making you sick.

Thousands of everyday products emit organic chemicals into the air. Additionally, VOCs are present in household staples such as cleaning products, paints, furnishings, and pesticides.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.”

Buildings with heavy concentrations of VOCs are sometimes referred to as having “Sick Building Syndrome.”

There are a wide variety of VOCs that can be found in the home. Some give off a bad smell, but even odorless organic chemicals can also have adverse effects on our health. It all depends on concentration levels.

Common Household VOCs

  • Acetone – furniture polish, wallpaper
  • Benzene – paint, carpeting
  • Butanal – stoves, cigarettes
  • Carbon Disulfide – chlorinated tap water
  • Dichlorobenzene – deodorizers
  • Ethanol – dish and laundry detergents
  • Formaldehyde – the most common indoor VOC, found in floor lacquers and certain plastics
  • Terpenes – soaps and detergents with fragrance
  • Toluene – paint

We don’t think about it on a daily basis, but VOCs are ever-present. When possible, always choose VOC-free paints, detergents, and deodorizers.

Buy acetone-free nail polish remover and water-based furniture polish substitutes. When using a product known to contain VOCs, ensure proper ventilation in the home and store the products outside of the home, in the garage or a storage shed.

Products that contain VOCs:

  • Paint (and other solvents)
  • Wood Preservatives
  • Aerosol Sprays
  • Cleansers & Disinfectants
  • Moth Repellents & Air Fresheners
  • Stored Fuels & Automotive Products
  • Hobby Supplies
  • Dry Cleaned Clothing
  • Cosmetics
  • Pesticides
  • Building Materials & Furnishings
  • Upholstery and Foam
  • Office Equipment (e.g., copiers and printers, correction fluids, and carbonless copy paper)
  • Graphics & Craft Materials (including glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions)

Sources: EPA; Minnesota Department of Health

How do VOCs affect my health?

The health effect and the severity of it really depends on the level of concentration and the length of exposure to the VOC. Short-term exposure to certain VOCs may produce headaches and a worsening of asthma symptoms and respiratory issues. Long term exposure to indoor VOCs will cause liver or kidney damage and even cancer.

Health effects may include:

  • Eye, nose & throat irritation
  • Headaches, loss of coordination & nausea
  • Damage to liver, kidney & central nervous system
  • Some organics can cause cancer in animals
  • Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.

Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include:

  • Conjunctival irritation
  • Nose & throat discomfort
  • Headache
  • Allergic skin reaction
  • Dyspnea
  • Declines in serum cholinesterase levels
  • Nausea
  • Emesis
  • Epistaxis
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness


How to Clear Home of Volatile Organic Compounds

Pollutant Source Removal & Air Distribution

One of the best ways to keep VOCs out of the home is knowing where they come from and how to control them.

  • Stay away from products that contain VOCs as much as possible. Find out which products have VOCs (the National Institute of Health’s website is a great resource).
  • If you have any products that contain VOCs, store them in a sealed container away from all living spaces. These include paints, adhesives, solvents, and pesticides. A garage, shed, or another well-ventilated area will do the trick.
  • Buy products containing VOCs in small quantities that are used up quickly so you don’t have to store them.
  • Dispose of VOCs properly. Since many VOC products are considered hazardous waste, contact your town or visit to learn how to recycle and dispose of household toxics.
  • Always use VOC products in well-ventilated areas without any people around. Better yet, use products containing VOCs outdoors. Open windows and doors and use an exhaust fan. Select the proper respirator for the job with the 3M Respirator Selection Guide.
  • Allow time for new building materials and renovations to ventilate
  • Have a qualified HVAC technician conduct routine annual maintenance of your HVAC system. Ask your technician about air cleaning, filtration, ventilation, and other indoor air quality solutions.
  • Inspect HVAC air filters every 30 days and replace them every 30-60 days.
  • Replace water-stained ceiling tiles, furniture, rugs, and carpeting if necessary.
  • Enforce no smoking rules indoors.
  • Install a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) to solve poor air quality and lack of ventilations. An HRV refreshes stale air by introducing outside air while removing indoor air through an exhaust vent. Every home should have an HRV and working exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom.

Air Cleaning

Air cleaners won’t solve all of your VOC and air quality problems, but they will certainly help.

  • Control indoor air pollutants and capture small particles with clean and effective air filters (minimum MERV rating of 7). The higher the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating, the better the filtration. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters are the best; however, you may need to modify your HVAC equipment. Speak with an HVAC technician for more information.
  • HVAC filters do not remove gaseous pollutants.
  • Some air purification products, such as UV air cleaners. can effectively reduce VOCs in the home, but there are limitations.

Learn more about How to Improve Indoor Air Quality.

Know the symptoms of too much VOC exposure. If you are experiencing dizziness or headaches or respiratory irritation in the home, contact your local indoor air quality specialist. Residents of East Bay, South Bay and Sacramento can call Service Champions to investigate the cause.

If you’re interested in learning about the level of pollution in your home, we offer comprehensive professional indoor air quality services. The ventilation in your home is a huge factor in having healthy air to breathe. We determine if your home is susceptible to contaminants and remedy accordingly. Duct cleaning and sealing, air duct sealing, air filtration systems and other whole-home solutions are available based on need.

Contact Service Champions today for your FREE In-Home Air Quality Consultation.

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