What are VOCs & How do they Affect your Indoor Air? | Ryan Refrigeration

What are VOCs and How do they Affect your Indoor Air?

Everyone wants to have cleaner air. Since the days of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols and other propellant products, homeowners have become more aware of air pollution. Now, people are talking about volatile organic compounds, and the concern has shifted to indoor air quality. That’s because VOCs and other greenhouse gases are regulated outdoors for ozone protection, but they’re still a major culprit of indoor air pollution. The problem is that they’re in so many household products that it can seem like a challenge to cut down on or get rid of them altogether. Read on for more information about VOCs and what they do to your home’s air.

What Are VOCs?

Paint. Carpeting. Flooring. Air fresheners. Mothballs. Cleaning products. Non-stick cookware. Gas space heaters. Mattresses. All of these everyday household items have VOCs in them. But what are VOCs, and why are they so common?

While VOC means volatile organic compound, don’t be fooled by the seeming wholesomeness of the word “organic.” It simply means something of natural origin, which in this case refers to carbon. Most VOCs are man-made, however, and exclude gases such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Next, the word “volatile” tells you that it quickly evaporates or turns into vapor, and “compound” means that it’s made up of two or more ingredients. VOCs have low water solubility and high vapor pressure as well as a low boiling point under regular room temperature. They’re used as binders, surface coating, sealant, fuel, adhesives, cleaners and more. These VOCs are classed depending on the level of volatility from very to semi-volatile.

Some common examples of VOCs are:

  • Toluene
  • Naphthalene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Acetone
  • Benzene
  • Butanal
  • Ethanol
  • Carbon disulfide
  • 1,4-dioxane
  • Xylene
  • Acetaldehyde

Chloromethane was a VOC that was widely used as a refrigerant, pesticide and gasoline additive. It was fortunately discontinued many years ago due to its toxic effects, which are similar to alcohol intoxication.

How VOCs Affect Your Indoor Air

VOCs are present as air pollutants outdoors, but their concentration is usually higher indoors than outdoors because of the enclosed environment. In fact, consumer products account for 90% of human exposure. Just bringing any VOC-containing products into the home will increase the presence of VOCs many times over. This also leads to more exposure, causing short and long-term negative health effects. Factors such as poor ventilation or heat can increase your exposure to VOCs.

VOCs are released into the air as fumes from products. They evaporate most during their application or opening and continue strongly during the first couple of months. Even if liquids containing them have dried, they will continue to off-gas in smaller amounts. They also turn into harsh chemical gases or become flammable when exposed to heat.

VOCs can cause several possible negative health effects depending on the specific chemical in question, both short-term and long-term.

Short-term effects:

  • Increase of asthma or allergic reactions
  • Skin burns
  • Visual disorders
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory problems
  • Headaches and loss of coordination
  • Nausea
  • Irritability and depression

Long-term effects:

  • Nose and mouth cancer
  • Damage to esophagus and bronchial tubes
  • Birth defects
  • Hormonal and reproductive issues
  • Liver, kidney or brain damage

VOCs have varying levels of odor ranging from noxious to none at all. Fragranced products have extremely high levels of VOCs. But if you think you can see which ones are in your household products, think again. Manufacturers aren’t federally required to list ingredients, and even “unscented” or “fragrance-free” products simply have a masking fragrance. “Green” and “natural” products likewise aren’t required to list ingredients and may still contain some level of VOCs.

How to Reduce VOC Exposure in Your Home

Your home is an important refuge and should be one major environment that you have control over. Thankfully, there are some ways to get VOCs down to reasonable levels. Try taking the following steps.

Get Rid of VOC Products: The good news is that there are a lot of low-VOC and no-VOC alternatives to many common household products. The bad news is that VOC-containing products are so common that it takes a conscious effort — and money — to replace most of them. Some involve an investment, such as insulation or carpeting, so you should resort to replacing them only if they are an issue.

Toxic refrigerants in older homes (more than 30 years old) are one example. You probably don’t want to toss your mattress just yet, either. But if you get a brand-new one, you’ll want to air it out for several days. Otherwise, position it near a window, use a polyethylene mattress cover and air it out regularly.

Some of the newer mainstream consumer products are also marketed as “low VOC” or “no VOC.” While they have little to no odor and are far safer to use than regular VOC products, they’re not completely free from harmful effects. They also have cleaning and exposure restrictions, such as not mixing them with other specific chemicals. You will still inhale them, but they off-gas much less, and their levels are normally low enough to not be of concern.

An alternative to low-VOC and no-VOC products is to seek out simple, non-toxic products that you can use for everyday chores such as cleaning, deodorizing, unclogging drains, washing clothes and more. Baking soda, vinegar, lemon, Borax, and soap flakes are just a few examples.

Get an air purifier: Even if your air has no odor from VOCs, that doesn’t mean it’s free from harmful elements. After all, some are odorless and many will break down into odorless compounds in a few days. You’ll specifically want one that can trap nanoparticles, which most VOCs are made of.

When using VOC products, wear a mask and ventilate: Have you heard about how people tend to get sick in offices with poor ventilation? That’s because they’re exposed to levels of VOCs that are too high. Open windows and run fans to dissipate the VOCs from your indoor air.

Add potted plants: Plants are great at filtering chemicals from the air. While there is some debate over how effective they can be, potted plants will boost your mood and well-being regardless.

Don’t allow smoking indoors: Benzene, formaldehyde and more than 70 other carcinogens are in cigarette smoke. Even if the smoker opens a window, the smoke will still get into the walls, ceiling and furniture.

Indoor Air Specialists to the Rescue

Your comfort comes down to more than just eliminating VOCs or fixing the temperature in your home; it’s ultimately about your health. Long-term health impacts from indoor air pollution are less noticeable than short-term effects. However, even a short-term change in mood can be an unnecessary distraction in your life. That’s why it’s best to eliminate the culprits as soon as possible and as thoroughly as possible.

Your exposure to VOCs is highest after their initial application, but they can continue to off-gas and increase your health risks for years. The most thorough way of ensuring your health is to get air quality testing. The certified professionals at Ryan Refrigeration can not only examine your home’s air purity but also its ventilation, insulation, heating and air conditioning for protection from the elements.

You naturally want your indoor air to be the best you can have. Fortunately, it’s easy and affordable to get excellent air quality in San Diego and the surrounding areas. Simply contact Ryan Refrigeration for the fresh indoor air you deserve.

Got Questions? Need a quote?

We know heating, AC, and solar can be a big investment. We're here to answer any questions you may have and provide a free, no-obligation quote for the work you need.