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VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds]

VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds]

Off-Gassing in Our Homes and Outdoor Air

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that are released into the air from a host of solid and liquid products. VOCs may adversely affect our short- and long-term health. While some VOCs are man-made, others occur naturally. Although VOCs are found both indoors and outside, indoor concentrations of VOCs can be up to 10 times higher than those outdoors, posing a greater threat to health.

Thousands of products in our daily lives emit VOCs. These include some nail polishes, paint thinners, crafting supplies, dry-cleaned clothing, cleaning supplies, adhesives, and furniture. Common VOCs include acetone, benzene, and formaldehyde, among others. They are categorized as either “semi-volatile,” “volatile,” or “very volatile,” depending on how quickly and easily they enter the air. Some VOCs produce a smell (like those found in nail polish remover, vinyl shower curtains, and permanent markers), but others are odorless.

VOCs Affect You and the Environment

The impact of VOC-producing products depends on a few factors, like how volatile the compound is, how much of it is being used, and how much ventilation is available where it’s being used. Breathing in or ingesting VOCs can have both short-term and long-term health effects. In the short term, some VOCs can cause dizziness, asthma symptoms, headaches, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Long-term effects may include increased risk of cancer, liver and kidney damage, and birth defects.

Outdoor VOCs can also affect the environment, as these gases contribute to smog by producing ground-level ozone, a highly reactive gas that’s made of three joined molecules of oxygen instead of two like life-sustaining oxygen. Ground-level ozone—even in relatively low levels—can harm plants and impact ecosystems. It can also harm our health by making it difficult to breathe deeply, causing coughing and sore throats, increasing frequency of asthma attacks, and damaging the lungs. Children, people with lung disease, older adults, and people who are active outdoors may be particularly sensitive to ozone.

Regulating VOCs

The environmental movement of the 1970s first heightened public awareness about these chemicals, previously known as reactive organic gases. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates VOC emissions via the Clean Air Act, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates the VOC formaldehyde in the workplace. Green building standards, including LEED certification, mandate low-VOC emission standards.

The Economics of VOCs

As consumers have learned more about VOCs, industries have responded by creating products with fewer potentially damaging ingredients. For example, nail polish traditionally contains the VOCs formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene, but more companies are now offering “3 free” versions that remove these harmful compounds, as well as “5 free” versions that cut out formaldehyde resin and camphor. In many businesses and homes, less-toxic, water-based cleaners are increasingly replacing petroleum-based solvents. Low-VOC products tend to cost more up front, but research shows that they warrant the investment: One widely publicized study from 1998 concluded that VOCs at hazardous-waste Superfund sites cost $330 million in health care costs and lost productivity.

What You Can Do

If you’re using a product that emits VOCs indoors (think cleaning products, paints, and building materials), open windows and doors to increase ventilation, and limit your exposure as much as possible. Whenever possible, seek out safer alternatives and environmentally friendly options, like green cleaning solutions, low-VOC paint, and services that use “wet” cleaning instead of dry cleaning.



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