Even in the most carefully maintained homes, volatile organic compounds can be found at some level in multiple places. Often referred to as VOCs, volatile organic compounds show up in a variety of household sources, from paint to furniture fabric to cosmetics. VOCs infiltrate the air that you and your family breathe when they evaporate at room temperature, a process called off-gassing.
In addition to being found in paint, furniture fabric treatments and some building materials, VOCs can be found in air fresheners, cooking fuel, cosmetics, disinfectants, pesticides and more.
According to U.S. EPA studies, the quality of air in a typical American home is two to five times dirtier than the air just outside the door. VOCs play a major role in the erosion of indoor air quality. They conspire with modern airtight home construction that prioritizes energy efficiency to make purifying indoor air more challenging than ever. Without proper ventilation and air filtration, contaminated indoor air is confined inside and accumulates, endangering the health of you, family members and guests in your home.
Long-term exposure to VOCs heightens a person’s risk of developing certain types of cancer, liver or kidney damage, or afflictions of the central nervous system. At the same time, immediate exposure can result in throat, nose and eye irritation, nausea, headaches and dizziness. Young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of inhaling volatile organic compounds, as are elderly people and other susceptible individuals.
The good news is that while you can’t eliminate all VOCs from your home, you can do a lot to reduce their presence.
Take These Steps to Reduce VOCs
• When practical, purchase household products containing low or no VOC levels. When you can’t avoid bringing them into your home, take the time and effort to seal and store them properly. If you have a closed room separate from the main part of the house that you can use for storage, place these materials there.
• When buying furniture, consider pieces that have been used as floor models. Sitting on the display floor, a particular couch or arm chair has had a chance to release VOCs harmlessly into the air of the store (where there’s a lot more space for it to dissipate). When you have the choice, select solid wood models of furniture with natural finishes.
• Take steps to ensure your home has adequate ventilation – meaning there’s a regular exchange of stale indoor air with fresh outside air. Take advantage of natural ventilation (open windows and doors) when the outside weather is dry and moderate enough to allow it. Your kitchen and bathrooms should be equipped with exhaust fans that remove smelly, humid and/or contaminated air.
• Look at your options with regard to a whole-house air cleaning system that works hand-in-hand with your forced-air cooling or heating system. For localized air quality issues, consider purchasing one or more portable room purifiers.
• Around your home place houseplants that are known for their ability to absorb VOCs and other chemicals. These plants include the spider plant, aloe vera, Boston ferns, golden pothos, English ivy and peace lilies. To varying degrees they can absorb and neutralize benzene (contained in pesticides, cigarette smoke, plastics and fabrics) and formaldehyde (contained in some cosmetics, carpet cleaners and fabric softeners), among many others. Houseplants not only absorb gases through their leaves and roots; the organically rich soil in which they grow helps to neutralize VOCs and other chemicals.
• While not directly related to issues arising from volatile organic compounds in the home, humidity control is another important ingredient to maintaining good indoor air quality. Use dehumidifier(s) during the cooling season and humidifier(s) during the heating system to keep air at an optimum level of humidity, for both health and comfort.