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What are VOCs + How to Reduce VOCs in Your Home

A quick guide to reducing voc emissions.



Spending too much time indoors isn't good for you. You're sitting down for hours on end, hunched over your computer and not getting enough Vitamin D.


But, the most serious threat of all to our health is the air itself - which may not be as healthy as you'd think. This comes down to one thing: volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.



Non toxic furniture with no vocs


What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?


Volatile organic compounds are chemicals which are:

  1. volatile (evaporate easily into the air)

  2. organic compounds (made of carbon atoms)


If you're looking into how to reduce vocs in your home, it's important to learn to recognize the sources first. Using an air freshener, pumping gas, or picking up some dry cleaning – we’ve all encountered VOCs at some point. They're used in the manufacturing of commercial and industrial products. Many VOCs are in everyday household products and furniture. They're also in products we rely on to build our homes, like paints, varnishes and flooring.




What are VOC Emissions?


As we mentioned, the ‘volatile’ part of VOCs comes from their 'low boiling point'. That’s why they are able to evaporate as gas or vapor into the air at normal, or indoor, temperatures. Once these chemicals release from materials and off-gas into VOC emissions, they displace the oxygen in your home. And, you’re breathing them in.


You can find VOCs both indoors and outdoors. They’re everywhere. Many of us use products with harmful VOCs without even knowing. Even more, these VOC emissions remain in the air for a long time. So, long after you’ve finished your activity, like painting or cleaning, or brought a new home. These VOC emissions may harm people and pets when inhaled or absorbed. Negative health effects range from respiratory issues to damaged immune systems and cancer.






What are Common VOCs Found Indoors or in Homes?


Now that we know what the stakes are, we can look at common VOCs you might find in your home and look at how to reduce indoor voc levels. Many household items that we use to build, furnish and maintain our homes lead to voc emissions over time.




What are Common VOCs Found in the Air?


Whether it's baking or grilling, we all love a delicious home-cooked meal. But, one of the main sources of VOCs in the air comes from appliances like our stoves, gas grills and fireplaces.



Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)


Nitrogen oxides are made up of nitrogen and oxygen. Appliances like gas stoves, space heaters, gas dryers and fireplaces burn either wood, kerosene or liquified petroleum gas. This can produce high levels of NOx. These gasses can also be emitted from smoking indoors too.


If these areas aren’t properly ventilated, levels of NOx can build up and cause harmful effects, including: increased asthma attacks, worsened coughing and reduced lung function.



Propane and Butane

Usually found in gas grills and heaters, propane and butane are useful VOCs for cooking and heating. They are the fuel for combustion and are very volatile, which means that they evaporate very easily into the air. So, it’s easy for high concentrations of these gases and also benzene to build up indoors. Too much exposure can lead to dizziness, headaches and passing out.




To reduce your exposure to VOCs from combustion gas cooking:

  • Consider electric stovetops or induction cooktops, which have come a long way from the old school electric stoves

  • Place gas heaters for your HVAC and/or water heaters outside of your home

  • Install a direct vent gas fireplace that is completely sealed

  • Get an electric LED fireplace instead of gas; many models come with heater blowers



salad with grilled steak cooked on electric cooktop
Cooking with electric heat is best for clean air


Pthalates

You've heard of BPA, right? Well BPA is a chemical in the pthalate class which is found in many pliable household plastics. But did you know that a large number of fragrances and household paints, aerosols and cosmetics contain this? Even toys and vinyl flooring are known to contain pthalates.


Exposure can cause asthma, allergies and reproductive harm, plus these chemicals interfere with the production of the male hormone, testosterone (which women have, too).

non toxic pet toys
non toxic pet toys should contain no pthalates

Turns out these certain chemicals are really good at going airborne and offgasing at room temperature, which is why they're so often used in plug-in air fresheners. The Natural Resources Defense Council found 86% of air fresheners they tested to have pthalates.


It's best to avoid fragrances like plug ins. Look for candles made from plant-based waxes like soy or responsibly sourced palm oil.





What are Common VOCs Found in Water?


After getting to know what are vocs in air, our next place to look for them is in our water. Most of our drinking water comes from rivers, lakes, streams or wells. And, unfortunately VOCs manage to find their way inside our water supplies and ground water.



modern bathroom using filtered water
Trihalomethane

The water supplies we rely on usually have a lot of organic material, e.g. plant matter, algae and bacteria. Chlorine is a popular chemical to treat our water because it kills bacteria and viruses. The downside is that trihalomethane (THM) forms when chlorine reacts with the organic matter. The concentration of trihalomethane found in the water depends on:


  • the amount of chlorine used to treat the water

  • the temperature of the water being treated

  • the amount of organic matter in the water, like bacteria and algae


Drinking contaminated water over time can cause illness. But, your exposure is even worse when you absorb contaminated hot tap water through your skin. From taking a hot shower or washing the dishes. THM is linked to cancers and adverse reproductive outcomes.



Pesticides and Herbicides

organically grown flowers
organic gardening avoids pesticides & still makes for beautiful gardens + veggies

Farms. Agriculture. Food Supply. These are the go-to thoughts we have when we talk about pesticides and herbicides. But, many people continue to use pesticides to treat their backyards, local parks and favorite golf courses.


It comes at a cost.


Once they’re applied, pesticides soak into the soil or travel through storm drains. They drip into our ground and surface water sources. Then, into our drinking water supplies.


The harmful effects of exposure depend on:

  • the level of toxicity of the pesticides or herbicides

  • the amount in the water

  • the amount of time you’re exposed

Exposure can weaken your immune system or put you at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.



Tetrachloroethylene

Thinking about taking that pile of dirty clothes to the dry cleaners? Maybe it's best you put that errand off. As the only thing that could be worse than running errands on a busy day is bringing home your clothes covered in VOCs from dry cleaning.


Tetrachloroethylene is a man-made chemical derived from petroleum that is used for stain removal in our dry cleaning. It's used as the starting material to make fabric finishers and spot removers.


lead free glass pitcher
water purifiers are essential // Devin Decanter Set

Of course wearing those dry cleaned clothes are a quick way to get hefty dose of VOCs.


This VOC can stay in the air for a long time. People are usually exposed by breathing in contaminated air and drinking contaminated water. Signs of exposure include skin irritation and memory loss. Over time it can break down your nervous system, or cause liver and kidney damage.


Water filters are an easy and effective way to voc reduction in your tap water. Installing a whole home water purification system or individual point of use water filter can effectively remove chlorine, chemicals like tetrachloroethylene, and organic contaminants. (More about that in the Clean Water eBook.)





What are Common VOCs Found in Paint?


After looking at what are common VOCs in our air and water, it's time to uncover those we find on the walls of every single room. You've got it, paint.



Toluene

The most common use of toluene is as a solvent for paints, paint thinners and lacquers. It's used as an ingredient to help create a thin coating, so the paint is easier to apply and can dry effectively.


We get exposed by breathing the chemical in. If you’ve ever smelled the scent of strong smelling glue briefly – that was toluene. In fact, carpets use a lot of glue in the backing and during installation -- a major reason why their voc load can be so heavy.


Short term exposure can cause headaches, dizziness and sleepiness. Over a long period of time, exposure can lead to muscle weakness, brain damage and impaired speech. Pets can also develop lung and liver problems with prolonged exposure to toluene.



How to avoid Toluene in paint?

Choose water-based acrylic paints that contain no exempt solvents, zero HAPs (hazardous air pollutants), no biocides or fungicides, and no irritating preservatives. Better yet, make sure to paint over existing paint with one that will act as a sealer to reduce voc emissions from the old paint below.



Here's some other common sources of toluene inside your home, and safer alternatives:


  • Adhesives – Opt for glues labeled non toxic that have no acrid or strong chemical smell. Remember to test them and trust your nose.

  • Lacquers – Switch to a zero-VOC and odor-free lacquer for your kitchen cabinets and surfaces.

  • Cosmetics – Wondering what are vocs in makeup? Toluene is often found in nail polish and everyday perfume. Look for breathable and water-permeable based cosmetics.


Non toxic, zero voc and preservative free paint for a safe environment
VOCs in unexpected places, like makeup


Benzene and Xylene

You'll find benzene in glossy paints, spray paints and paint thinners. It's a colorless, sometimes odorless, and is a highly flammable chemical. Unlike other VOCs, you can go years without noticing benzene. Once your walls are painted, benzene evaporates into your home and disrupts your immune system over time.


Xylene is used as a paint solvent because it’s great at removing old paint and glue from a range of surfaces. It’s more effective than toluene as a paint thinner because it doesn’t evaporate as fast. This means it sits inside your paint or lacquer for longer and can thin out even more chunks to get a better finish.


The most common method of exposure is inhalation due to the fast evaporation rate. The vapors go straight into your lungs which makes it very difficult to avoid.





How to avoid Benzene and Xylene inside your home?

Use a zero HAPs (hazardous air pollutants) paint on your walls, cabinets, furniture and trim. Also select non toxic cleaning products and stain removers for your home. Any odd, sweet smelling odors in the air could be a sign of benzene. Other common Benzene and Xylene sources inside your home, and safer alternatives:


  • Magic markers – you can find xylene-free pens and markers for school supplies

  • Shoe and furniture polish – use polish made from natural plant based oils and waxes

  • Engineered flooring – opt for porcelain tile, cork floors or concrete flooring

  • Building products – much more on this on our book published last year, Healthier Homes





What are Common VOCs Found in Furniture?


From the paint on our walls to the furniture we bring into our beloved homes. Every little bit of effort in voc reduction helps when you're creating a safe and comfortable environment for your family.



Formaldehyde

Your latest furniture purchase has arrived. You unpack the cardboard box, tear away the plastic and get a whiff of something overpowering. That chemical odor is likely to be formaldehyde. Used in the production of upholstery, synthetic fibers, coatings and adhesives for furniture.


Some harmful effects include respiratory issues, worsened coughing and eye irritation. Severe exposure can result in choking and chemical burns on your lungs. Formaldehyde is also considered a carcinogen. It smells a bit like a mix of vinegar and burned match sticks.





Common sources of formaldehyde in a home:


  • Pressed wood products, like OSB, paneling, MDF and particle board

  • Fabrics used in curtains and upholstery

  • Glues and caulks

  • Wallpaper and paints

  • Most foam insulation


Ways to get rid of formaldehyde and reduce voc emissions at home:



  • Find furniture with non toxic finishes, made from solid wood, metal, stone or natural ropes and leathers

  • Go for non-toxic and safe plant-based fabrics (among our favs are flax, tencel, cotton, bamboo and modal)

  • Choose VOC-free wallcoverings made from recyclable materials and water-based inks

  • Install insulation free from binders made with formaldehyde or tar


 


Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

The most widely-used plastic, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), is very versatile and cost effective. This comes at a steep price. PVC is the most environmentally damaging of all plastics and it contains pthalates. You may find it in your wall coverings, carpet backing, flooring, and home furnishings. They offgas for many years and tend to have a beach ball smell.


Exposure to high concentrations of PVCs can lead to damage to your major organs and cancer.



Common Sources of PVC in a Home:

  • Luxury vinyl plank flooring (LVP)

  • Wallpaper labeled vinyl coated

  • Carpet backing made with synthetic latex, some polyurethanes and thermoplastics

  • Plastic children's and pet's toys

  • Mattress protectors

  • Shower curtains



Tips for Avoiding PVC in your House

  • Opt for porcelain tile, zero VOC cork or solid wood for plank flooring

  • Choose wallpapers made from grasscloth, cork, silk, bamboo or shells

  • Use rugs made from plant-based yarns instead of carpet

  • Find PET or PP children's toys or those made from natural hardwoods

  • Scope out mattress protectors and shower curtains manufactured from corn-based waterproofing or bamboo and/or lyocell fabrics that are woven to be waterproof




 

A Word on the Safety of Fragrances


Some of us love scents while others would walk an extra block to avoid the perfume counter. If you happen to be a scent lover, don't feel bummed about giving up on your plug-ins or candles made with synthetic petroleum-based ingredients... There's a few new heroes in town, like candles made with ethical plant-based waxes like soy and palm oil. Making a homemade scented oil plug-in using non toxic essential oils is easier than you think. Here's a quick DIY recipe.



How to make non toxic homemade plug-ins

 


Next Steps for How to Reduce VOCs in Homes


By now you know who our enemies are when it comes to what are vocs. Remember, you're the design director, and you get to decide what products and materials go in your home's environment.



The next step is to make a plan and take action to reduce voc emissions inside your house. Here's a quick recap on how to do just that!


  1. Swap out your solvent paints for water-based paints. Normal paints have organic solvents that help paint to dry faster and spread evenly. These petroleum based VOCs can harm your family’s health (including your four-legged family members). Choose non toxic acrylic paints, a much safer alternative.

  2. Choose safe furniture and wallcoverings. So many brands of furniture, flooring and wallpapers are treated with chemicals during the manufacturing process. Start replacing things like your mattresses, tables and chairs with furnishings made from clean, natural materials that are free from vocs.

  3. Increase ventilation when using household products that emit VOCs. Potentially hazardous products usually have warning labels on them. For example, a cleaning product with advice that it should be used in a well-ventilated area. Ensure your space is well equipped with an exhaust fan, or open windows and doors.

  4. Control levels of humidity in your home. Chemicals off-gas more in spaces with high humidity and temperatures. Keeping the humidity level between 30 - 50% is optimal. You can buy humidity sensors and install dehumidifiers in your home.

  5. Throw away partially used chemicals. VOC emissions can leak from even closed containers. These hazardous products can’t be thrown away in your regular garbage can. They need to be safely disposed of in a toxic household waste collection in your local community.

  6. Invest in the right tools. Get a voc meter to measure your air's total volatile organic compounds (TVOC) and formaldehyde levels. Many are available online, like the Temtop meter, which we've had success using. Also invest in filters for your tap water. More about this in the Clean Air eGuide.



Our mission is to take the guess work out of buying VOC free furniture and decor that's safe for your family. Feel free to check out our collections here!


Whether you're looking to build, remodel or just make some upgrades, that's what we're here for :)






What are some of the steps you’re taking to improve the air quality of your home?
We’d love to hear in the comments below!

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