The Dangers of Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) release hazardous carbon-based gases into the atmosphere. You’ve probably used products in your home which contain them.

volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are found in many day to day items used in the home. Such items include permanent markers, glues and adhesives, correction fluid, photocopiers and printers, cleaning products, pesticides, paint strippers, paints, lacquers, air fresheners, building materials, and indoor furnishings. However you can buy products which are free from these compounds so that you’re not exposed to their dangerous properties.

What are volatile organic compounds?

They’re carbon-based chemicals which release toxic gases into the air at room temperature. Most of them have a strong odour, but they can be odourless and go unnoticed. This doesn’t however dictate the level of risk involved with inhaling them.

Common examples of the compounds which are found in everyday items include:

  • Acetone
  • Benzene
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Formaldehyde
  • Methylene chloride
  • Perchloroethylene
  • Toluene
  • Xylene
  • 1,3-butadiene

If you buy an air freshener, using some of these chemicals in the home are unavoidable.

Because the gases from volatile organic compounds are mainly found indoors, this is where the highest concentrations can be found. This obviously isn’t good for your general health. Studies have actually shown that the concentration of these gases is between two to five times higher than the amount found outside.

How do volatile organic compounds affect your health?

You may have heard of the risks of inhaling air fresheners, hairsprays and paint fumes for long periods of time. While the effects of such products are damaging to the environment, the potential damage to our health can be even scarier. Effects from low level exposure to VOC gases include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and more severe asthma symptoms. These are treatable, but long term exposure can increase the chance of cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, and central nervous system damage. Needless to say, this puts long term exposure to VOC gases close to the level of risk from exposure to asbestos.

The people most at risk from VOC gases are young children, the elderly, people with respiratory conditions like asthma, and anyone sensitive to chemicals.

How can the level of VOC gases be controlled?

Many products, such as paint, will have VOC-free alternatives. These often don’t perform as well but they’ll be far safer to use. If there aren’t any VOC-free alternatives, there might be ones which have a lower amount. You can also make sure that the area you’re using VOCs in is well ventilated by opening doors, windows and using fans. While the air outside also contains VOC gas, it’s nowhere near as concentrated as it is indoors. This means that more will get expelled into the atmosphere, but your risk of contracting a potentially fatal condition is lowered. Either polluting the atmosphere or endangering your health aren’t very appealing choices, but it’s a decision you’ll have to make.

You can further limit how much VOC gas you’re inhaling by limiting the temperature and humidity of the rooms they’re being released in. Volatile organic compounds will release less gas in cooler conditions and therefore the air quality is better. As a bonus benefit, you’ll save on your energy bills.

Also, finishings and furnishings which contain VOCs shouldn’t be that dangerous if they’re quite old. Most compounds will often emit all their gases in a short period of time. However, it can never be 100% determined how long it takes for this to happen. If you’re unsure of the products in your home, you should consider replacing them to be on the safe side.

If you buy new products, you should only consider ones with volatile organic compounds in them if you absolutely have to. Some products don’t have a VOC-free alternative because of how poorly they perform without them, so you should choose wisely in order to limit how many of these products you purchase. It’s possible to buy solid wood items of furniture which have low emitting finishes or which have been allowed to release all VOC gas before being sold. As with many VOC-free products however, these can be more expensive to buy.

Finally, you should also be careful about how many air fresheners are being used around the home. There are now devices which many people use that propel a scent into the air at regular intervals or whenever someone walks past. This can seem convenient, but they can gradually affect your health over time without you even noticing. If you experience shortness of breath or you start getting regularly bunged up, consider getting rid of them.

You should also consider not using an air freshener in a bathroom or toilet room. These rooms are often quite small and can be poorly ventilated, so spraying heavy amounts of air freshener before someone else goes in there can be incredibly hazardous for their lungs.

For further advice on the properties of volatile organic compounds and how to dispose of them safely, check out this US Environmental Protection Agency guide.

Image: Anna Lloyd

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