What is a volatile organic compound (VOC)?

“Organic” is a major buzzword for anyone looking to live a healthy lifestyle.

Organic products promise to keep us from chemicals, impurities, and other less-appealing ingredients. Add “volatile” to the term, though, and things don’t sound quite as rosy. Volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) are near-ubiquitous in everyday life and are a major contributor to pollution and low air quality. Here’s what you need to know about them:

I’ve heard of organic compounds. What’s different about a volatile organic compound?

An organic compound is any chemical that contains carbon. Our bodies, and all living things, are made up of them; most common sugars, fats, proteins, and alcohols are organic compounds. Volatile organic compounds are a subset of these chemicals that have a tendency of vaporize, or off-gas, at room temperature.

What are some common examples of VOCs?

Chemically speaking, the most-common VOCs people encounter daily are benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and butadiene. These chemicals are present in many household products, including paints, cleaning supplies, wood sealants, air fresheners, pesticides, fuels, cooking gas, and crafting supplies like glue.

Do VOCs cause air pollution?

Yes, but not entirely on their own. Burning fuels — including gas, wood, coal, natural gas, and diesel — releases VOCs into the atmosphere. In sunlight, they combine with nitrogen oxides and react to create ozone at ground level. In combination with particulate matter and other pollutants, that ozone creates smog that reduces visibility and creates health hazards.

Health hazards? What are the biggest concerns there?

Health effects of VOC exposure — through breathing, touching, or swallowing — vary depending on the length of exposure, and the toxicity and concentration of the given chemical. Acute (a.k.a. short-term) exposure can lead to headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, and eye and throat irritation. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, like asthma, might be more prone to reactions. Some studies have linked long-term exposure to cancer, liver, and kidney disease.

So, if many VOC sources are around my house, should I be more worried about them indoors?

Most definitely. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), indoor VOC concentrations can be up to five times as high as they are outdoors. And, in instances of heavy chemical activity, such as stripping paint, concentrations can spike to 1,000-times outdoor levels.

Is there a threshold for when VOC concentrations go from safe to unsafe?

There is no federally-adopted limit for VOC exposure in homes, but many agencies do make recommendations for individual compounds — specifically ones that are known to have substantial health or carcinogenic effects. World Health Organization research, for instance, indicates that formaldehyde exposure for 30 minutes at a concentration of 81 parts-per-billion (ppb) will cause sensory irritations; up concentration to 100 ppb and lengthen exposure, and the risk of nasal cancer rises.

What can I do to minimize my exposure?

VOCs are so common in our paint and furnishings, that ridding your home of them entirely isn’t exactly realistic. But there are things you can to zap many chemicals from the air. For starters, consider switching to natural cleaning products or use plain baking soda and vinegar in their place. When cooking, painting, or cleaning, ventilate your home by opening windows and keeping fans running. At the same time, a HEPA air filter with an activated-carbon layer can trap up to 99 percent of what doesn’t get carried off in the breeze.

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