VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) lurking in every home and how its affecting our health

Have you ever noticed a strong smell when you enter a building under construction, a newly painted room or a newly furnished room? This pungent smell is a sign of VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds in the air.

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are organic chemicals which have low boiling points and thus they evaporate and mix into the air very easily. Most odours are some or the other form of VOC. It may include natural or man made chemical compounds. For Example: Naturally occurring organic chemicals are the chemicals released by the plants to attract insects/animals. Whereas the pungent smell from paint comes from formaldehyde which has a low boiling point of -19 degree C.

How are VOCs related to health?

VOCs like benzene, formaldehyde, etc. are carcinogens that cause health problems. Breathing them in can lead to a condition called “Sick Building Syndrome”. The short term health effects include headache, nausea, acute eye, nose, throat irritation, worsening of asthma or loss of coordination.

What poses a more serious risk to our health is the extended exposure to it. Exposure to VOC concentration found in our day to day life takes time for the symptoms to become noticeable, and by that time the damage has already begun. So by ignoring VOCs in your surroundings, we put our self at risk for long term effects such as memory impairment, visual disorders, central nervous system related issues , kidney damage, liver damage, and even cancer. These risks are more adverse for children.

Sources of VOCs:

Its important to understand the sources of VOC so that we can take measures to reduce our exposure. Here is a list of items that are the most common potential sources of VOC.

Sources of VOC

Each of these sources release volatile compounds in the air and the accumulation of these particles becomes more concentrated inside closed spaces due to collective effect of indoor and outdoor VOC.

America Cancer Society has classified chemicals like Benzene and formaldyde which can be found in paint, glue, furniture wax, detergents, thinners as human carcinogen (Read more here).

How can we reduce VOCs?

You've probably realised by now that most of the products that release VOCs are used regularly in our homes, offices and children's schools. Studies have found that levels of such compounds average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. During, and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping to name one, levels may be upto 1,000 times higher than acceptable levels.

Considering the fact that atleast some part of our house gets painted once every year or every two years and the various chemical based household products we regularly use, the accumulation of VOCs can become quite alarming. So what do we do about it? Here are some solutions to ensure that your family isnt inhaling these toxins.

  • Measurement: Even though you can often smell VOCs in the air, sometimes these chemicals might decay over a period of time and you may not smell the strong odour anymore even if VOCs are still present. This is why it is essential that we measure their levels at schools, corporate offices and even at home using a reliable measurement device. You can use the recently launched Airveda monitor PM2510CVTH to measure VOCs accurately. Learn more about our VOC measuring monitor here. TVOC (total volatile organic compounds) in the air is measured in ppb (parts per billion) or ug/m3(micro grams per cubic meter). TVOC levels up-to 325 ppb in indoor spaces are acceptable, but one must take the following precautions if the levels are higher.

  • Controlling the source: It is crucial to eliminate sources of VOCs to minimize your exposure.

    • While purchasing any chemical-based products: detergents, deodorants, air fresheners, adhesives etc., choose a product that doesn't contain large quantity of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, methylene chloride, perchloroethylene, chlorofluorocarbons.
    • When buying new furniture and mattresses allow them to off-gas before bringing them into the house.
    • Encourage schools and offices to purify the air after furnishing or install monitors and purifiers after big renovations for initial years since off gassing can go on for longer in such cases.
    • Don't overuse products like sprays, dyes, lubricants etc.
    • Do not unnecessarily store large amounts of such chemical based products in the house to prevent leaks and make sure you follow directions (how and how much to use) on their labels.
    • Avoid using plastic containers near stove or in microwave. Even if the plastic is graded microwave safe, heating can still cause them to release these toxins.
  • Regular ventilation: The easiest way to deal with VOCs at home is to open the windows and let fresh air flush-in so as to avoid excess accumulation indoors. Offices and other larger buildings should set up automatic demand controlled ventilation system to ensure that buildings can be ventilated when VOCs concentration inside is high.

  • Air Purification: Air purifiers equipped with activated carbon filters are an effective way to reduce concentration of VOCs in indoor air, in particular in locations where ventilation with outside air is not possible.

We hope that this article has helped you learn about VOCs and urge you to start noticing smells and measuring VOCs to ensure cleaner air in your homes, offices and children's schools. Sometimes they smell, sometimes they dont. But they are always harming you.

Please write in the comments below if you have any additional questions or thoughts. We would love to hear them.


About the author

Airveda team is a group of people helping everyone breathe well and live well.