What are VOCs and How Do They Affect Your Health?

You may work hard to protect your home from allergens, illness-causing germs, and other airborne pollutants, but your furniture, appliances, and even personal care products might be the ones eroding your health. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are found in many household objects and products. If absorbed by the body in unhealthy doses, they can cause many negative side effects, some of which are severe health concerns. 

What Are VOCs?

VOCs are a set of compounds that have low water solubility and high vapor pressure. Many of them are man-made chemicals that “off-gas” or are released into the air that we breathe. They may or may not have a detectable odor, but exposure to VOCs at unhealthy levels can lead to negative effects on your health. 

Common examples of volatile organic compounds are:

  • Industrial solvents, like trichloroethylene.
  • Fuel oxygenates like methyl tert-butyl ether or MTBE.
  • Byproducts resulting from water chlorination treatment, like chloroform.

How Do VOCs Affect Your Health?

VOCs are a group of chemicals, each one with unique properties and levels of toxicity. The potential side effects on human health, and the severity of these side effects, will depend on the type and nature of the organic compound, the level of exposure or chemical concentration in the air, and the length of exposure. 

Short-term exposure to high levels of VOCs can result in the following negative health effects:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Aggravated asthma symptoms

On the other hand, long-term exposure to high levels of VOCs, spanning years to a lifetime of exposure, can lead to:

  • Deterioration and damage to the kidney, liver, and central nervous system.
  • Cancer.

Those with respiratory concerns are more vulnerable to the effects of volatile organic compounds, as breathing in even low levels of volatile organic compounds can worsen asthma symptoms and trigger allergic reactions. Additionally, young children, the elderly, and those who are highly sensitive to chemicals may be more susceptible to the negative effects of VOCs. 

People living in urban areas are also at risk, as research indicates that VOC emissions in densely populated areas significantly impact air quality. For example, during the summer of 2018 in New York, it was found that the contribution of volatile organic compounds to high ozone levels was comparable to the contribution of burning fossil fuels.

What are the Common Sources of VOCs in Your Home?

You may have more VOC producers in your home than you realize. According to the EPA, the concentration levels of many volatile organic compounds are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. Furthermore, studies conducted by the EPA found that the levels of approximately a dozen common VOCs are two to five times higher inside the home than outside, regardless of whether it’s located in a rural or urban area. During and even many hours after specific activities, VOC levels can be up to 1,000 times higher indoors versus outdoors. Additionally, people who use products containing VOCs are exposed to high and concentrated levels of air pollution, which persist in the air for a long time. 

Examples of VOC sources commonly found in the home include:

  • Home and personal care products
  • Furniture and building materials
    • Carpet and vinyl flooring
    • Upholstery and foam
    • Paint, paint strippers, caulks, wax, and varnishes
    • Composite wood furniture and products
    • Graphic and craft materials such as permanent markers, glues and adhesives, and photographic solutions
  • VOC-generating activities
    • Dry cleaning
    • Cooking
    • Wood burning and smoking
    • Photocopying

In the previously mentioned 2018 study that found that VOCs significantly contributed to elevated ozone levels, half of the VOC emissions came from personal care products, while the other half came from adhesives and coatings. According to atmospheric chemist Matthew Coggon, other densely populated megacities wherein people commonly use similar products are likely experiencing the same case. 

Results from a 2021 study on the inhalation of VOCs from facial moisturizers indicate that facial application results in a more concentrated dose of inhaled VOCs versus compounds hanging in ambient indoor air over 24 hours. 

Additionally, a 2010 study investigated the VOCs emitted by 10 types of furniture and appliances. They found that the sofa had the highest total VOC emission rate, relatively high emission rates from the desk and chest, and notable emissions from the cupboard and refrigerator. 

How Do You Reduce VOCs in Your Home?

Here are a few simple ways to minimize the level of volatile organic compounds in your home and potentially avoid the adverse health effects of unhealthy VOC exposure:

  • Reduce the level of VOCs that persist in ambient indoor air by using an air purifier that is specifically equipped with a filter to capture and neutralize volatile organic compounds.
  • Carefully follow the usage and storage instructions of products containing VOCs. Particularly hazardous products typically have warnings and directions on the label which are meant to reduce the user’s exposure, so ensure to follow these correctly. Avoid mixing household products, unless otherwise directed on the product label. 
  • When possible, only buy what you need and will immediately consume. Avoid storing opened and unused VOC-containing products, as these may off-gas and be inhaled. When disposing of used containers or containers still partially filled, read the label for disposal instructions, and check with your county or local government if there are specific guidelines for toxic household waste disposal. 
  • Newly dry-cleaned clothes typically emit perchloroethylene, which is known to cause cancer in animals. Ensure that your dry-cleaned goods have been properly dried and do not emit a strong chemical odor before picking them up. 

Sans air purifier is equipped with an activated carbon filter which is proven to neutralize volatile organic compounds. Alongside its pre-filter, HEPA-13 filter, and internal UV-C light sterilization, Sans is a medical-grade air purifier that ensures your home is filled with clean and fresh-smelling air. Shop the Sans air purifier today.