What’s all the fuss about VOCs?
(Portions adapted from “There’s A Dog in the House: A practical guide for creating today’s dog-friendly home”)
Indoor air quality is a major concern because the average human spends 90% of a typical day indoors. Our dogs often spend more time inside our homes than we do which means that indoor air quality in homes is a concern for them as well. While many things can contribute to poor indoor air quality one primary culprit is VOCs.
VOCs or volatile organic compounds are substances that readily evaporate at room temperature. They are emitted as gases from certain solid and/or liquid materials. “Volatile” describes chemicals that evaporate easily into the air at varying rates, organic refers to chemicals that contain carbon, many are made from fossil fuels. VOCs form smog, odors and toxic vapors. They can be inhaled or absorbed through our skin. Sources include synthetic chemicals AND natural elements such as mold or citrus oils.
There are thousands of potential VOCs in our homes. The list includes: household cleaners, paint, furniture, upholstery, carpet, clothing, air fresheners, hairspray and perfume. Some VOCs show up more than others and not all of them are harmful.
The health problems associated with VOCs vary and depend on the concentration, length of exposure and amount of the chemical, the personal physical characteristics of the individual, and whether the chemical was breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Immediate symptoms from VOC exposure include eye, nose and throat irritation, difficulty breathing, headaches, rash, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, and nosebleeds. Long exposure to VOCs may contribute to more serious illness including damage to major organs, cancers and neurological problems. The level of VOCs indoors is 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors so this is a major concern to everyone.
TVOCs or Total Volatile Organic Compounds refers to the total number of VOCs in a given air sample. If everything in your home is evaporating chemicals there will be more than one chemical in your air sample and that is what this represents. In addition most products will contain more than one chemically caused VOC. MVOCs refers to Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds and are produced by certain types of molds.
Professional testing is available to determine the levels of VOCs in your home.
Other things to consider:
- Use household cleaners and chemicals in well-ventilated areas or leave a few windows open after using them.
- Purchase items with NO or lower VOCs (not always labeled)
- Non-fragrant products often have lower VOCs
- Some all natural products can have high VOCs (ex. pine oil and citrus oil)
- Resist the temptation to use more of a product than is necessary. More is not necessarily better.
- Use liquid or solid cleaners instead of aerosol cleaners to avoid quick evaporation into the air and inhalation of chemicals.
- Avoid products with benzene, toluene, xylene or tricholorethane, petroleum distallates, phenolic compounds and glycol ethers. For a more complete list see Resources below.
- Avoid products with chlorine bleach
Several third party organizations certify cleaners and other products based on low emissions for indoor air quality. The organizations include: Green Guard; Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems.
For more information on indoor air quality visit the following websites.
- Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry
- Air Quality Services
- Environmental Working Group
- EPA Indoor Air Quality