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VOCs: How to Protect Your Indoor Air Quality

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Oct 3, 2020

With lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, canceled classes, and endless Zoom meetings defining much of this strange 2020, most of us have probably been spending an enormous amount of time at home. Even before the global pandemic began, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the average American was spending around 90 percent of their time indoors. Many homeowners might have taken advantage of this extra time at home to incorporate some unique outdoor living areas connected to their home (if you need some inspiration, check out these great ideas from Rise). However, with winter just around the corner, many of us will most likely be closing up our pools, decks, and outdoor grilling areas for the year.

This year especially, protecting our indoor air quality should be high on the list of priorities. With the heightened risk of COVID-19, many people have decided to invest in the best air filters and air purifiers for their homes. These products can certainly protect your family from dust, pet dander, bacteria, and other airborne contaminants. However, VOCs are another hidden source of airborne pollutants that might be causing significant harm to your home's inhabitants.

Cleaning With Sponge

When strolling through your local hardware or home improvement store, the chances are that you see many products advertised as "no-VOC" or "low-VOC." With greenwashing practices, unfortunately, taking hold in the building and home improvement industry, are these claims just another shameless attempt to attract homeowners looking to improve the environmental-friendliness of their homes?

What Are VOCs?

VOC stands for "volatile organic compounds." The EPA defines VOCs this way: "volatile organic compounds (VOC) means any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions."

VOCs in home building products and materials are essentially different chemicals utilized to manufacture various building materials. These include products for the structural construction of houses, a wide variety of interior furnishings and fixtures, everyday household cleaning products, and personal care products.

The word "volatile" refers to these chemicals' ability to evaporate or "off-gas" into the air inside your home at average room temperatures. The word "organic" refers to the fact that these chemicals are carbon-based.

It is essential to state that volatile organic compounds do occur in nature and natural settings. For example, in healthy forest ecosystems, many plants rely on VOCs to communicate with other plants and send SOS messages when a threat is present. However, many products that release or off-gas VOCs into our homes are certainly not as benign as plant language in the forest.

Why Do We Care About VOCs in the Home? 

Many of the most dangerous VOCs have an incredibly high vapor pressure. This term means that chemicals that have extremely low boiling points can release vast amounts of molecules that evaporate from the compound's liquid or solid form. This characteristic is known as high volatility. When a substance releases molecules into the air, these can remain airborne for differing periods. In indoor settings such as our homes, these molecules are breathed in by the home's occupants. Unfortunately, many VOCs are known to cause serious health problems.


Let's consider just two of the most common VOCs affecting indoor air quality.

What Is Formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is commonly used in dozens of household products, including paints, resins, sealants, etc. Many companies rely on formaldehyde for several different purposes. For example, it contributes a permanent-press quality to clothing, curtains, and other textiles used in furniture. In addition, it is an essential component of glues and adhesives and helps to preserve paints and coating products.

Unfortunately, formaldehyde is exceptionally volatile. It has a boiling point of only –19 °C (–2 °F), meaning that it quickly evaporates from paints and other materials even in the coldest of homes. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)reports that virtually all households in the country have at least small amounts of detectable formaldehyde in their interior air quality. Though formaldehyde usually is present at low levels (less than 0.03 ppm or 30 ppb) in both inside and outside air, higher levels have been linked to a whole host of health issues.

The American Cancer Society reports that formaldehyde is shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Other studies have found that long-term exposure to formaldehyde can lead to nasopharynx cancer. Formaldehyde has been linked to several respiratory issues. It is known to cause eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation. High levels of formaldehyde in the home can narrow the bronchi and even lead to asthma.

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is another extremely common VOC found in millions of homes' indoor air quality across the country. It is commonly used in glues, adhesives, cleaning products, paint strippers, and other standard household products. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) states that benzene is a definitive cause of cancer in humans. Long-term exposure has been shown to lead to leukemia and cancer of the blood-forming organs. In addition, because benzene is high in gasoline, homes with attached garages and improper ventilation might have higher benzene levels in their interior air.

Scented Candle

What Are Common Sources of VOCs in the Home?

By now, it might be becoming evident that the "low-VOC" claims of certain products at Home Depot might be more than just a marketing ploy. Lowering the VOC levels in our homes is an integral part of creating a healthy home. Knowing the sources of VOCs is the first step to achieving this objective.

Gas Stoves

Cooking with a gas stove is most likely releasing a large amount of dangerous VOCs into your home. It is worth mentioning that any method of cooking will lead to particulate matter released into the air. This fact is one of the reasons why kitchens and cooking areas should be well-ventilated. However, studies have shown that cooking with gas is especially problematic. The burning of gas produces PM2.5, which is a hazardous air pollutant. Research suggests that gas stoves create about twice as much PM2.5 as electric stoves, thus adding one more reason why you should consider opting for an all-electric home. Gas stoves, mainly when they are not functioning correctly, will release nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and formaldehyde (CH2O or HCHO) into the home.

Paints and Sealants

The vast majority of paints, sealants, and other types of adhesives used in homes contain high VOC levels. That five-gallon bucket of paint you picked up at your local hardware store might contain several cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, methylene chloride, and formaldehyde, among others. Depending on their level of volatility, these chemicals will off-gas into your home. They will commonly remain in your household air for at least up to six months. 

Furniture and Carpeting

Various furniture and carpeting products generally have high levels of VOCs. Styrene, mainly used for carpet backings and other textile backings in furniture, is especially dangerous for human health. Textile auxiliaries and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are commonly found in furniture, carpeting, curtains, and other household textiles.

Cabinetry and Other Manufactured Wood 

Manufactured wood products are exceedingly present in homes. Plywood, particleboard, fiberboard (such as MDF), oriented strand board, structural composite lumber, among others, are used for flooring, cabinetry, molding, and other interior home structures. These glued-laminated wood products often rely on formaldehyde and other chemicals that can off-gas into the home. Unfortunately, engineered wood products are required by law to include moisture-resistant adhesives. 

This requisite often means that these products are exempt from emission testing requirements, such as the California Air Resources Board regulation for formaldehyde from wood composites. This exempted status makes it hard for the end consumer to determine the amount and type of VOCs present in their engineered wood products. However, some studies have shown that VOCs in particleboard may continue to off-gas for 20 years or more.

Scented Candles and Air Fresheners

VOCs are ubiquitously present in scented candles and air fresheners. The most common air fresheners on the market emit over 100 different chemicals, including terpenes, terpenoids, ethanol, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, xylene, and phthalates.

Cleaning Products

Many commercial cleaning products, laundry soaps, and stain removers consist of many chemicals and fragrances. These ingredients are harmful to our health and to the waterways that they are washed into.

Air Purifying Plant

How Can You Avoid VOCs in Your Home?

As we mentioned above, every home will have at least a small level of detectable VOCs in their interior air. However, there are things that every homeowner can do to lower the concentration of VOCs in your home.

Choose Natural Fibers over Synthetics

When shopping for new furnishings like couches, curtains, or drapes, choosing natural fibers such as cotton, wool, or sisal will most likely have much lower VOC content. Check out our guide to sustainable sofas and sectionals for more advice.

Choose Zero VOC Paint

Today, most hardware stores offer a complete section of low VOC paint. The EPA requires paint labeled as zero VOC to have lower than 5 grams of VOCs per liter. Rise's low and zero VOC paint guide is an excellent place to start your search.

Avoid Air Fresheners and Scented Candles

Instead of purchasing cheap air fresheners for your home, consider opting for air-purifying plants.

Choose Natural Cleaners

Luckily, many companies now offer healthy cleaner options made without dangerous chemicals and synthetic fragrances. Beware of greenwashing, though! Be sure to read the label and consult sources like EWG's Healthy Living App. Better yet, make your own!

Choose Your Sealants and Adhesives Wisely

Proper sealing of your windows and doors is an essential aspect of an energy-efficient home. However, adhesives, like caulking, often have high levels of formaldehyde. Check out this Rise guide for finding safe sealants and adhesives for your home.

Non-Toxic Ways to Seal Wood

The natural wood look is beautiful in any home. Instead of chemical-infused varnishes and stains, this Rise guide offers advice on finding healthy and non-toxic wood finishes.

Natural Scent

Lowering the VOC level in your home does require a bit of research before heading to your local hardware store. However, as consumer interest in healthier indoor air quality increases, fortunately, more and more low-VOC and zero-VOC products are becoming available.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-21T13:18:21+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.