What are VOCs and what are they found in?

VOCs are chemical compounds harmful to humans, our pets, and the broader environment. Most of us are blissfully unaware of what these are, where they are found, and what we can do to avoid them. Worldwide there is growing consensus that VOCs, particularly in indoor air are hurting us, and are being legislated against, however, Australia is lagging behind in this regard.

VOCs is short for ‘Volatile Organic Compounds’, and this refers to particular chemical solvents containing carbon which release gases into the air at room temperature, causing air pollution. In painted rooms, and in a range of other household objects and products, VOCs make their way to the surface over time, and offgas into the indoor air. Most of this offgassing occurs when products are new, or when walls are freshly painted for instance, after which it lessens. However, there are studies which show unhealthy levels of VOCs in indoor air up to 5 years after the application of products containing VOCs. There are several categories of VOCs, and these defined by their solvents’ boiling point – basically how hot a given paint needs to get before it boils – not by the smell they give off, and more importantly, not by their level of toxicity. This is problematic because an odourless VOC can be just as dangerous as those we can smell. This is why it’s necessary to know exactly what ingredients are contained in your household products!

VOCs are found around the household in products such as household paints – both water-based and oil-based – construction materials and new furnishings, varnishes, adhesives, synthetic fabrics, cleaning products, scents, and sprays. VOCs can also contaminate indoor-air as a result of certain personal activities, such as smoking. Furthermore, while most VOCs emit fumes, odourless VOCs are not uncommon, and this is all-the-more-reason to know what’s contained in your household products. When choosing products to use in your home, you should:

  • Use surface coating products (paints, varnishes etc.) that are classed as containing “No VOCs” (and be wary of products labelled “Low VOCs”, and their more ambiguous counterparts labelled “Low-to-no VOCs”)
  • Seek advice from the supplying company if the information shown on the product isn’t clear
  • When adding new surface coatings on walls and floors, make sure that enough ventilation is present. You should also consider daily ventilation of older painted rooms or where floors have been redone if you are unsure of the VOC content of the products used.

The most effective method of controlling your VOC exposure is to eliminate them, however, if this is not completely possible, ventilation, separation between occupants and problem materials, or absorbing the pollutants with indoor plants are ways you can improve the air quality of your home.

Most of us spend a large portion of our time indoors, and at-home air quality does affect us; what you can do to address air pollution in the home is incredibly important for those inhabiting the space. The greater the amount of pollution in the environment, the greater the health impacts are going to be. While some VOCs are unavoidable – for example, when it comes to certain specialised cleaning products – it is possible to drastically reduce your exposure simply by actions such as painting your walls with no VOC paint. Painted walls typically cover around 80% of indoor surface areas! The duration of exposures is also something to keep in mind: a low-level of exposure to VOCs over an extended period of time can also result in a large dose of VOCs entering the body, and the health issues associated with that.

Eliminating VOCs from our daily lives is important for all. Educating ourselves about what they are and where they are is an important first step.

Sources:

Cheng, M., Gallbally, I., Molloy, S., Selleck, P., Keywood, M., Lawson, S., Powell, J., Gillett, R., Dunne, E., 2016, ‘Factors Controlling Volatile Organic Compounds in Dwellings in Melbourne, Australia’, Indoor Air, Vol. 26: 2, pp. 219 – 230.

Department of Health and Ageing, 2003, ‘Healthy Homes: A guide to Indoor Air Quality in the Home for Buyers, Builders and Renovators’, Department of Health and Ageing, Australian Government.

Gelder, J. & Onyon, L., 2001, ‘An Introduction to Chemical Risks in the Build Environment’, Environment Design Guide, PRO 4, Australian Institute of Architects, Melbourne.

Total Environment Centre, 2001, ‘Safer Solutions: Keeping Your Home Healthy and Green’, Total Environment Centre, Sydney. http://www.safersolutions.org.au/

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