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What are VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)?

by VitalStorm Content on January 30, 2020

Winter in Seattle means homes are locked up tight – with a heater running 24/7.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollution levels average from 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor air. In fact, indoor air can be up to 100 times more polluted than the outdoors! While you may think this is an exaggeration, this statistic can be explained by the rising levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in today’s environment. With years of experience improving indoor air quality, the Blue Flame team is here to help clear the haze on indoor pollution.

What are VOCs?

In today’s world, we all know that organic is always the healthier option. However, in this instance, the word “organic” is not so healthy. So what are VOCs, anyway? VOC is a category for compounds that vaporize or put off gases at room temperature into the environment around them. As a result of VOCs, hazardous toxins are introduced into the air. A VOC that is often prevalent in affected homes is formaldehyde. If you recall the most well-known use of this substance – for embalming – you can probably appreciate the danger of breathing air containing VOCs like formaldehyde. Now, you may be asking, “How in the world does a substance like that get in my home air?” Well, read on to find out!

Where Do VOCs Come From?

At the risk of ruining one of life’s simple pleasures, consider this scenario: You just bought a new car, and now have that wonderful “new car” smell to look forward to every morning during your commute. There’s just something about that first, satisfying inhale as you pull out of your driveway that brightens the day! Sound familiar? Well, here is where we change your world – this smell comes from VOCs dispersing off the recently made materials. While the purchase and smell of a fresh product may be a satisfying sensation, it is not very healthy to inhale and process these chemicals in your lungs. But what about formaldehyde? Well, here are some sources of formaldehyde, along with other VOCs that might invade your home air:

  • Formaldehyde

As mentioned above, formaldehyde’s most well-known use is for embalming. That being said, unless you live in a funeral parlor where embalming is done in-house, that’s probably not the source of this VOC’s invasion. On the contrary, the likelier source of formaldehyde in your home air is much more commonplace than you may think. To start, formaldehyde is common in many building materials like particleboard, plywood, and foam insulation. In addition to these materials, this VOC is often present in the fabric of carpets and drapes, and even in most varieties of dryer sheets.

  • Mold

Mold also makes the list, as it releases spores that can be incredibly detrimental to your health if inhaled. Because moisture is the lifeblood for mold growth, it’s not surprising that this VOC is typically found in bathrooms, kitchens, basements, and ducts. A common cause of mold growth in bathrooms is a lack of proper ventilation. If you don’t have a window or exhaust fan, the steam from your shower or bath has no means of escape. As a result, that steam moisture collects on bathroom surfaces, creating the perfect environment for mold to thrive. In the kitchen, mold can grow  when you cook without proper ventilation. Furthermore, mold can grow in your ducts anytime there is an air leak. Additional sources of mold are plumbing and roof leaks. Essentially, anywhere you have the potential for water damage, humidity, or poor ventilation, a breeding ground for mold can be found.

  • Acetone

Another common VOC found in indoor air is acetone. In addition to most nail polish removers, household products like furniture polish are also common sources. If any of your rooms are treated with wallpaper, this could also be a source of acetone in your home air.

  • Terpenes

If worrying about your favorite dryer sheets wasn’t enough, you may also want to take a closer look at your favorite soap and laundry detergent for terpenes. Since lavender, thyme, pine, and citrus fruit-based essential oils contain terpenes, soaps and detergents with these fragrances are problematic. While terpenes aren’t necessarily the most dangerous of VOCs, they can form more harmful substances when they react with ozone in the air.

  • Benzene

Posing a greater risk to your health is benzene, which is prevalent in a startling number of everyday products. To name some of the most common sources, paint, glue, carpeting, detergent, rubber, plastic, dye, and medications contain benzene. Although many state departments already take measures to regulate the levels of benzene in various contexts, this isn’t a VOC you want an overabundance of in your home. In fact, high levels of exposure to benzene was recently linked to many cancers like Leukemia, along with reproductive health issues in women and subsequent birth defects in their children.

  • Ethanol

Another VOC that may be present in your favorite spring-scented laundry detergent or lemony-fresh dish-washing soap is ethanol. This highly flammable VOC is also in many perfumes, nail polish remover, and other common beauty products.

  • Butanol

Although few things deliver instant ambiance and relaxation like your favorite scented candles, they could be releasing butanol into your home air. That being said, your favorite candle isn’t the only creature comfort under attack. Other sources of butanol include barbecues and smokers, stoves, and cigarettes. If you understand the dangers of secondhand smoke, then you understand the threat this VOC poses to your home and health.

What are the effects?

Even those who are normally very healthy may experience dizziness, headaches, and respiratory damage after VOC exposure.  Long-term exposure often leads to lethargy. The true concern is for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma. VOCs may provoke an already sensitive system and trigger the symptoms. While we as humans are, thankfully, a resilient lot, it’s important that we take all the measures we can to care for our health and the health of those in our homes.

How do you combat VOCs?

To be completely chemical free is an impossibility in today’s world. However, we can limit our exposure to hazardous substances. Using more natural products in your home can reduce the amount of VOCs you are dispersing into your own environment. In order to work towards healthier home air, here are some places you can start:

1. Healthier Household Habits

In order to reduce VOC exposure to your indoor air, you can opt for healthier household products. A small change you can make is in the furniture polish you use. Look for a water-based substitute and ditch the VOC-ridden brand you’ve been using. You can also keep VOCs at bay by ditching your usual brand of detergents, soaps, and dryer sheets for more naturally made products.

2. Better Beauty Choices

To start, switch to acetone-free nail polish remover with a different solvent, like alcohol. Not only will this improve the quality of the air you breathe, but it is a healthier product for your nails. Additionally, you should rid your home of beauty products with aerosols like hairspray and look for organic makeup products.

3. Vigorous Ventilation

To keep mold at bay it’s important to have an effective ventilation and filtration system throughout your home. If you have bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans, use them diligently; if not, crack some windows! Ventilation is also important in keeping other VOCs like ethanol at bay. Any time you use cleaning products, the best practice is to open some windows and turn on your fans to direct the toxic air out, and let fresh air in.

4. Friendlier Fragrances

Finally, choose fragrances that are friendlier to your home air. If you aren’t ready to say goodbye to the lemony-fresh smell of a clean home, consider switching to naturally-scented citrus-based products. As a safe compromise, you can also switch your paraffin candles with soy-based or beeswax options.

Your Strongest Line of Defense Against VOCs

Beyond making some changes to your daily habits, there is more you can do for your home air. For the strongest defense against harmful VOCs, have a Blue Flame pro test your air quality and help you choose the most effective solutions for your home! If you’re ready to breathe easier, visit our site or call us today at (206) 388-5667!