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How to Test for VOCs in Your Home in 3 Easy Steps

Brought in a new sofa and you've suddenly got a cough that won’t go away? Smell something funny in the air and not sure where it’s coming from? The root cause may be volatile organic compounds, VOCs, off-gassing in your home.

So, whether you're sitting in your cozy apartment or family home, we’ll explain all about VOC analysis and how to test for VOCs.

kitchen with no voc finishes

Volatile Organic Compounds in our Homes

You notice the fresh paint odor lingering in your living room. You feel a pounding headache ever since your new furniture arrived. You bring your dry cleaning home and notice a strong chemical odor on your clothes. There's a musty smell coming from the air conditioner. These are a few examples of VOCs in our everyday lives.

The toxic chemicals that cause VOCs can wreak havoc on your immune system – for both people and pets. The fastest way to find out if you have an indoor air quality problem is to test for VOCs. It can take as little as 20 minutes or less to run a VOC air test, and it works effectively no matter the size of your home.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines VOCs as organic chemicals which off-gas. VOCs are carbon-based and evaporate into the air. You can find VOCs pretty much anywhere. You may find them in your furniture, wallpaper, dry cleaning – even your favorite perfume.

It’s important to note that VOC emission levels are typically 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. On top of that, they’re notorious for causing allergic reactions in a lot of people… and even more devastating health issues.

>> Health Effects of VOC Emissions

... Some VOCs are toxic while others have no known health effects at all. Harmful VOC emissions can take a concerning toll on your health, depending on the type and the length of time you’re exposed.

The range of negative health effects that can happen when people and pets are chronically exposed to VOC emissions (even at low levels) include:

  • respiratory issues

  • skin irritation

  • headaches and nausea

  • damage to central nervous system

  • damage to (detox) organs, for example liver, kidney, etc.

  • lung cancer and other forms of cancer

  • sensitization + sudden onset of allergies

  • autoimmune disease + vascular problems

  • hair loss

There are immediate symptoms you may experience after exposure to harmful VOC emissions. These include:

  • headaches and dizziness

  • eye, nose and throat irritation

  • allergic skin reactions

  • brain fog

  • sudden anxiety or mood swings

While many of us are healthy, feel strong and even somewhat invincible a times, it's important to know that everyone is at risk for the adverse health effects from VOC emissions. The most vulnerable among us are:

  • infants and young children

  • pregnant women

  • older adults (65+ years)

  • people who smoke

  • individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, like asthma and heart disease

The sneaky thing about VOCs is that you might not notice any issues for months, or even years. These health issues can slowly sneak up on you over time. Especially, if you’re in a newly constructed home. Or, if you’ve done some recent renovations, for example cabinetry and flooring.

Given how serious the health implications are, it’s important to know how to test for VOCs in your home, which is why we wanted to create this blog post to share with you! This can be tricky if you’re not sure what to look for. So first, let’s take a look at how we measure VOCs as healthy home builders.

cat sleeping on a pouf
Who feels the effects of VOCs first? Kids, older adults, pets + those with medical conditions.

How are VOCs Measured?

Trying to understand how we measure VOCs can be confusing. Especially without the technical, science-y knowledge on the different methods used to test for them. So let's start with the basics.

>> What is VOC Testing?

VOCs are often grouped together as TVOCs (total volatile organic compounds). Their concentration levels can be calculated in many ways with different VOC measurement tools.

>> Measuring VOCs in Air

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) has the following recommendations of TVOC limits for indoor air. They use nanograms per liter (ng/L):

  • less than 500 ng/L is acceptable

  • between 500 to 1,500 ng/L is marginally acceptable

  • anything above 1,500 ng/L is elevated

  • higher than 3,000 ng/L is severe

Did you know? A nanogram is one-billionth of a gram. That's really tiny -- considering a gram is the mass of a small paper clip.

Another popular unit for measuring TVOC concentration levels is milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3):

  • less than 0.3 mg/m3 is low

  • between 0.3 to 0.5 mg/m3 is acceptable

  • anything above 0.5 mg/m3 may harm people and animals

Other common VOC measurement units are:

  • micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of air

  • parts per million (ppm)

  • parts per billion (ppb)

So before we move onto the next bit of information, let's take a second to acknowledge two important things... First, for those already sensitized to the effects of vocs, the thresholds for what's safe, (listed above), may be lower.

And second, sometimes it's hard to compare measurements as apples to apples, given the different units of measurement. What counts is being consistent in your own measurements and using a frame of reference that relates to your own measurements. So now that you’re all clued up on TVOC levels, let's look at how to test for VOCs in your own home.


How to Test for Volatile Organic Compounds in Your Home

It’s actually pretty easy to test for common VOCs in your home. Then, once you have the information on your indoor air quality – you can do something about it.

Air quality meters work in any type of home, whether you’re in a city apartment or a large country house. This is because the VOC air test measures your TVOC level per liter of air. So, it doesn't matter how big or small your humble abode is.

What is a VOC Test?

There are quite a few options which are inexpensive and readily available online, including handheld VOC testing meters that are battery operated and about the size of a walkie talkie. These are handy to have on the go, and reliable units will usually run $150 and up. They work by sampling a continuous flow of air that gets sucked into a chamber that reads total VOC and particulate counts. Some hand-held VOC meters offer features for measuring specific VOC's, like formaldehyde (HCHO), which is particularly handy for isolating bad actors within a home.

There are also volatile organic compound testing kits that take air samples and then require sending them off to a lab. These come with several pieces of equipment, including an:

  • air pump

  • testing strips

  • glass test tubes

Step 1: Ordering your VOC Meter

Finding and ordering an air quality meters and testing kits online doesn’t take long at all. Probably, around the same time you may use mindlessly scrolling through TikTok or watching your favorite TV show. In fact, even Amazon has a good selection! The most important thing is these are an excellent way to assess the indoor air quality in your living environment.

Step 2: How to Test for VOCs in Your Home

If you're using the handheld VOC meters (like the one we're holding in one of our homes), it's best to let them air out before turning the meter on, especially if storing the meter in a drawer or enclosed space. Once we start measuring, we usually let the meter run and then take an overall average of the VOC levels.

Handheld VOC meter

tip: Placing the handheld VOC meter inside a large glass jar with a glass lid is a great way to test specific items for offgassing. Like strips of wallpaper, carpet, etc.

It should take around 20 minutes, more or less, to complete a handheld meter or lab air quality test. If you're using the the testing kits that are sent back to a lab, always follow the instructions included with the kit. These usually require you to place your testing strips inside the glass test tubes. Attach the air pump and flip the switch to start running your test.

It’s not uncommon for VOC levels to creep up later in the day. In the afternoon, the sun’s heat can warm up different areas of your home. Higher levels of heat and humidity can cause some VOCs to off-gas faster in greater amounts. These can be the more dangerous types of VOCs, like formaldehyde, PVC or petroleum solvents. Being said, it may be better to carry out your test in the afternoon or evening.

Step 3: Air Analysis of VOC Testing

While air quality meters are very useful, you should be aware of some of their limitations. TVOC levels aren’t always a reliable indicator of how healthy your indoor air is. Keep in mind that harmless things like white vinegar or essential oils are sources of VOCs that are otherwise harmless.

Another words, don't clean your house or shower with tea tree oil and then test. These can certainly register as a VOC on your air quality meter, so it's important to factor in household items that may create a 'false positive' to avoid unnecessary panic (a big reason why we have shifted our focus from voc's to avoiding harmful chemicals called HAPs - hazardous air pollutants).  

Different meters also have variations in their programs. As a result, they conduct analysis on different types of VOCs. So, a total VOC count with meter A doesn’t mean the same VOCs will show up with meter B.

In fact, some volatile organic compounds testing kits offer more specific air quality tests, which we have found to be great tools for analyzing home furnishings, decor samples and of course homes. Specific tests are helpful to measure:

  • formaldehyde

  • mold or mycotoxins

  • carbon monoxide

  • pm2.5 & pm10 (particulates + size of air pollutants)

Remember: Not all VOCs are harmful.

Popular cleaning items like vinegar and lemons may impact your readings. If you used these to clean before testing the air quality, the readings will show an elevated VOC level. Neither vinegar nor lemons oil are toxic, but they are both natural VOCs. Since not all VOCs are bad, it's a bit tough for meters to provide an accurate assessment, all the time. Use your judgement wisely.

While they’re not completely reliable, VOC meter technology has come a long way in recent years. Your results will certainly help you to decide whether it's important (or even critical) to begin making changes to your home or office so that the environment is healthier and safer.

Bottom line, the results may be able to help you identify the areas in your home or items of furniture with high levels of VOC emissions. In fact there are a whole range of simple yet effective ways to remove harmful VOCs from your home.


How to Remove Volatile Organic Compounds from Your Home

So, your VOC air test results have come back. If you have a low or acceptable level of VOCs, hooray! (Or maybe you don't. If so, don't panic.) Even if it's optimal, those more vulnerable among us, like kids, immune-compromised or older adults, may still be affected at 'acceptable levels.'

This is why embarking on the healthy home journey is an investment in your long term health and vitality at any stage in the game.

With a high VOC reading level, immediate action is most certainly necessary. This gives you the upper hand in tackling potential indoor air quality. Even way before any symptoms or health issues show up should you be among the lucky. (Don't wait until you break! It's a lot harder to fix)

You may even be able to identify the specific room or item off-gassing toxic chemicals. If you smell odors in your home besides those from cooking dinner, your shampoo or other intentional fragrances, it's likely a source of pollution.

Some VOCs are more volatile and evaporate faster than others, like PVC and formaldehyde. a Couple among many dangerous VOCs which may cause us serious harm. Even more reason to kick them out as soon as possible! And crazy enough, some VOCs are colorless and odorless like radon, while others carry a nasty smell. So trust your nose, and your intuition.

Good news!

There's effective ways to remove VOCs from your home:

  • Open windows and increase ventilation on nice days with less pollen

  • Switch to natural household cleaning products

  • Throw away partially used containers of paints and primers

  • Refrain from smoking indoors (& don't smoke)

  • Switch to clean, natural pest control products (blog post coming soon!)

  • Store chemicals + pesticides away from the house and garage

  • Use water filters that trap or neutralize chlorine (VOCs evaporate from liquids too!)

  • Find a nontoxic drycleaner that uses less toxic liquid carbon dioxide instead of perc

  • Choose your furniture carefully; look for safe, no-VOC alternatives and make sure you do your research on any "low VOC" claims

  • Keep your humidity levels between 30-50%  

  • Install whole home air purification systems -- much more about this is in the Clean Air 101 eBook

  • Identify problem areas in your house or pieces of furniture which may be a possible source of high VOC levels:

    • Remove and replace them, if possible

    • Since this is not always possible, we often apply a nontoxic clear sealant on exposed surfaces to trap and encapsulate offgassing

Eliminating VOCs From Your Home is Easy as Painting?

Yes, the largest surfaces in your house are painted. -- According to the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), one of the main sources of VOCs are solvents used in paints and adhesives. Since the largest surfaces in your home are the determining factors of your indoor air quality, (walls, ceilings, furniture and cabinets), all of these surface finishes will dictate the indoor air quality you breathe everyday.

If you do have concerns, like Jen and Rusty did, I encourage you to check into sealing VOC off-gassing with the Healthier Homes paint line. The line of paints are important factors to creating a healthy living environment. Years of research has gone into the development of truly natural and safe zero-VOC paints - (no ammonia, no biocides, no petro, among lots of other no's). Even if you’ve used a paint with high VOC emissions in the past, not all hope is lost. Adding a coat (or two) of this non-toxic paint can help to seal any existing off-gassing from your surfaces. For good :)

Learn something new about VOC testing?

Still have questions about how VOCs are measured?

Let us know in the comments below!


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