You may have heard about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in your furniture or carpeting, but what exactly are they? What makes a chemical meet the VOC label? In this article, we’re going to give you all the basics: what VOCs are, the most common VOCs and where they’re found, what they mean for human health, and what you can do about it.
What Are Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs?
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a group of chemicals that can cause harm to human health because of how easily they can vaporize and float into the air we breathe. These chemicals are found just about everywhere: building materials and furniture, cosmetics and personal care products, fabrics and toys, and more. Once these types of products are brought into our homes and offices, they slowly “off-gas,” which means they leak out into the air we breathe.
VOCs are also heavily used in manufacturing too, which means they’re constantly being released into our outdoor air through industrialization. VOCs are a big source of both indoor and outdoor air pollution. However, most of the time when people talk about VOCs, they’re talking about this group of chemicals as it relates to household products and indoor air quality.
It’s important to note that you can smell some VOCs and not others. Whether or not you can smell a VOC is not indicative of how safe or unsafe it is.
But How Do They Actually Determine Which Chemicals are VOCs?
A VOC is an organic chemical compound which, simply because of its composition, can evaporate in a normal atmosphere. That means these chemicals can leak out of the products they’re in and into the air. Then, of course, you breathe them in.
Generally, the lower a compound’s boiling point, the more volatile it is. For this reason, many governmental organizations use the chemical’s boiling point to determine whether or not it will be classified as a VOC. They’ll also use the boiling point to determine what severity of VOC it is, or in other words, the ease at which it is emitted into the air.
When it comes to severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) categorizes VOCs into three main categories:
- Very volatile organic compounds (VVOCs)
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs)
VVOCs have the lowest boiling points and are the most easily emitted into our indoor air. VOCs are middle of the road. SVOCs are less likely to evaporate and enter your home or office atmosphere (more on SVOCs later).
What Types of Things Contain VOCs?
VOCs are found ALL around us, in things like:
- furniture and upholstry
- paints and laquers
- adhesives and caulks
- carpets and vinyl flooring
Personal Care Products
- dry cleaning
- developing photos
- cooking and camp fires
Here’s a List of the Most Common VOCs
Here’s a list of some of the most common VOCs (but this is definitely not a complete list).
- Acetone: found in things like nail polish remover, furniture polish, paints, and glues
- Butane: most often used for heating and cooking
- Carbon Disulfide: used to manufacture rayon fabric and cellophane; also used in insecticides, varnishes, and solvents
- Carbon Tetrachloride: used as a refrigerant, dry cleaning agent, and propellant for aerosol cans
- Ethanol: most commonly found in detergents and sanitizers
- Isopropyl Alcohol: used to make all kinds of personal care products like cosmetics, hair dyes, perfume, and soap, along with pharmaceuticals, anti-freeze, laquers, disinfectants, and more
- Formaldehyde: found all over the place! In furniture, textiles, shampoo, paint, and more
- Methyl Chloride: used as a refrigerant, herbicide, solvent, and more
- Propane: used for heating and cooking
- Toluene: used as an additive to process lots of common materials like nylon, solvents, dyes (like in cosmetics), and paints
- Vinyl Chloride: used in flooring, piping, and consumer products containing PVC plastics
Some of these chemicals are classified by the EPA as “very volatile (gaseous) organic compounds (VVOCs)” while others are given the standard “VOC” label.
What Are Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds?
The following chemicals are considered “semi” volatile organic compounds (SVOCs). In simplified terms, this group of chemicals has a higher weight and boiling point compared to VOCs, which means they’re less likely to vaporize at room temperature (a.k.a you’re less likely to breathe them in).
But don’t be fooled by the “semi” part of the SVOC categorization: they’re not necessarily any less dangerous. They’re extremely ubiquitous and tend to be less regulated than VOCs. And just because you may be less likely to breathe them in through the air doesn’t mean you can’t soak them in through your skin or ingest them through the water, etc.
To make matters worse, SVOCs are constantly being added to personal care products and home goods under super vague umbrella terms like “fragrance” and “additive,” which means consumers often have no idea these SVOCs are even in their products. This includes things like building materials, cosmetics and personal care products, furniture, electronics, and more.
- Phthalates: found in fragrances, candles, cosmetics, plastic products, detergents, deodorants, carpet, flooring, shower curtains, rain gear, and SO. MUCH. MORE.
- Pesticides (like DDT) and Insecticides (like Chlordane)
- Fire Retardants (like PCBs and PBBs): in addition to fire extinguishers, flame retardants are also often found in things like children’s pajamas and furniture
- Benzyl Alcohol: often used in cosmetics, personal care products (like shampoo and conditioner), inks, and dyes
What’s Up With the VOC Exemption List?
It’s worth noting that some VOCs are put on an “exemption list” by the EPA, which means they’re excluded from the same regulations that are placed on the other chemicals in the group. This is simply because they don’t contribute to ozone or ozone depletion. When it comes to indoor air pollution and human health, these exemptions are irrelevant. Just because a chemical is on this list doesn’t necessarily make it any safer.
How are VOCs Harmful to Human Health?
VOCs can cause acute health concerns such as:
- ear, nose, and throat irritation
- irritation and worsening of other conditions such as asthma
VOCs can also cause more long-term health concerns, like:
- liver and kidney damage
- central nervous system damage
When it comes to VOCs and human health, the level of exposure matters. As the ancient physician and philosopher, Paracelsus, said, “The dose makes the poison.” That’s true for a lot of things, including VOCs. Whether or not someone gets sick—and how sick they get—depends on things like how much is in the air, how long it’s in the air, how often a person breathes it in, and how vulnerable that person is based on things like age and other health concerns (like asthma or auto-immunity).
This is at the heart of the problem with so many of our household and personal care products these days. With some exceptions, exposure to small amounts of these chemicals isn’t likely to cause any long-term health issues. The problem, however, is that THEY. ARE. EVERYWHERE! The constant bombardment of VOCs all day, every day is what is most concerning for modern-day individuals.
That’s why so many people are currently trying to reduce the amount of VOCs they are exposed to on a daily basis. It’s practically impossible to avoid VOCs completely, but significantly reducing the amount you breathe in each day has the potential to greatly reduce your risk of long-term health effects cause by volatile organic compounds.
How to Reduce VOCs in Your Home
The Filtery is full of resources for how to reduce VOCs and other toxins in your home (and we’re constantly adding more!). So the next time you’re looking for something like a bed frame or nail polish remover with little to no VOCs, try searching The Filtery for safer alternatives.
But besides buying new products, what are some other things you can do to reduce your family’s exposure to these toxic chemicals? Here are a few tips:
- When it comes to chemical-heavy products like paints, solvents, adhesives, and caulks, buy only what you need and if possible, try to store them in an outdoor shed or garage. When these types of products are stored in the home, they can leak out into your indoor air.
- Open your windows when you can to increase air flow and decrease indoor air pollution.
- Consider purchasing an air purifer.
- Try to keep indoor tempurature and humidity down since these chemicals off-gas more in hotter and more humid environments.
- Be extra careful when doing home renovation projects. Try to do it while the house is unoccupied or during a warmer season when the door and windows can be open.
Unfortunately, volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are extremely common in our consumer products and home goods. But the good news is that knowledge is power. Now you know what VOCs are and a few steps you can take to reduce your exposure. Not only that but there are a lot of brands that are doing things differently these days by making safer products with little to no VOCs!
Feature Image Credit: Ron Lach