Hello! Welcome to this post about VOCs. You may be wondering, “What are VOCs? And how can I reduce my exposure to them?”
Or, you may be like I was before I got my MPH in environmental health science and be like “All that stuff is whatever; I’m sure it’s fine. People live with chemicals and stuff all the time.”
Ahh, sweet ignorance. Seriously though – getting my MPH in environmental health science really opened my eyes to a variety of topics I feel like more people should be educated about. It’s easy to be told and to believe that chemicals and pollutant exposure are just a part of life, and that everything is fine, but the truth is, many produce real and serious risks!
Please know that I am not an alarmist, nor do I want to ignite fear into you about any specific food or chemical. My goal is always to provide information about nutrition and environmental health science to equip people to make choices for a healthy life.
Random story…What Inspired this post
VOCs have been on my mind a lot lately, due to some 4-day-turned-4-week contract work that I was told was “low-VOC.”
Obviously, me being me, I had the urge to look up the chemical being used and to do my own risk assessment, and can say, that although it is not a known carcinogen to humans, I wouldn’t consider the work being done to carry zero risk.
I also have hypersomnia and am super sensitive to chemicals, so let’s just say…the last four weeks have been trying me. Of course, my concerns were washed over, and I was told repeatedly that “VOCs are fine!”
Sometimes it’s frustrating to have authority but not be respected. Sigh. I have legitimate training in this area, and literally was stared at like I was an alarmist idiot.
So it goes with choosing to study environmental health science and nutrition and looking young and having others make assumptions about my qualifications and level of competence. Just over here dealing with daily headaches and worried about people (and pets!) in this building! Sigh. In an attempt to turn my frustration into something positive, here is an informative post on VOCs to help you live your best life!
Anyways, let’s chat VOCs!
What are VOCs?
Volatile Organic Compounds (also known as VOCs) are compounds that are easily vaporized and turn to gases. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, emitted by a by a wide range of products, and inhaling VOCs can lead to both short and long-term health effects.
VOCs are most often found in higher concentrations indoors than outdoors. Many chemicals found in common building materials, home goods, and household cleaning products contain VOCs.
Sources of VOCs include paints, paint strippers and other solvents, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, air fresheners, pesticides, dry-cleaned clothing, moth repellents, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as printers, copiers, and graphic and craft materials like glues, adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions.
VOCs are also found in cigarettes, secondhand smoke, and vehicle exhaust.
The most common ways people are exposed to VOCs is through inhalation. Skin contact is another route of exposure.
What are the Health Effects of VOCs?
VOCs can cause a variety of short and longer-term health effects.
Early symptoms of VOC exposure include ear and respiratory irritation, headache, dizziness, and visual disorders or impairments.
More generally, VOCs can cause ear, throat, nose and eye irritation and discomfort, difficulty breathing, as well as allergic skin reaction and rash. Epistaxis, or nosebleeds, may also occur from VOC exposure.
VOCs can also cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, and loss of coordination.
Longer-term VOC exposure can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Some VOCs, including benzene (found in tobacco smoke, paint supplies, and automobile emissions) and methylene chloride (found in paint thinners and adhesive removers) are known carcinogens in human studies.
Others, like perchlorethylene (emitted during the dry-cleaning process) are known carcinogens in animals, and suspected carcinogens in humans.
As with all chemical exposures, health effects vary based on exposure level, time period of exposure, and individual susceptibility (some people are more susceptible than others).
VOC exposure in office spaces are sometimes responsible or contributory for a phenomenon known as “sick building syndrome,” or SBS. SBS describes a medical condition where people in a building have symptoms of illness of feel nondescript “unwell” for no obvious reason.
Elderly individuals and those with asthma may be more susceptible to the impacts of VOCs. Young children, who have an increased frequency of respiration compared to adults, are also more vulnerable.
Concerningly, there is not much presently known about levels at which people are commonly exposed to VOCs in homes. It’s also difficult to measure many VOCs in home or office settings.
How Can I Reduce my exposure to VOCs?
If there’s one thing that drives me bonkers about exposure to environmental exposures, it’s feeling like I can’t do anything to protect myself from them. Luckily, there are a couple of ways you can reduce your exposure to VOCs.
First, you can try to reduce VOC-producing products that you use (which may include in-home pesticides, certain cleaning products, dry-cleaning, wood preservatives, aerosol spray paints, adhesive removers and paint thinners).
When using VOC-containing products, assess how necessary they are. Often times, cleaning and home-maintenance projects can be completed with safer alternatives (planning to do a safe cleaning product post soon…stay tuned).
If it is necessary to use VOC-containing products, do not purchase more than you need, and follow the instructions on the product label carefully. Do NOT mix household chemicals, and be sure to keep them out of reach of pets and children. Strive to ventilate the area as best as possible, and dispose of all unneeded chemicals safely.
Unfortunately, some of us may work or live in buildings over which we have no control of maintenance schedules, product and furnishing selections. Still, there are some things you can do to reduce exposure.
You can also strive to purchase VOC-free or low VOC house goods. For example, the shades that came in my apartment smell like outgassing plastic. Shades are a common source of VOCs. If you look for low or no-VOC home goods and furniture specify, you can find them (although they may be harder to track down, and/or a bit more expensive).
If you rely on dry cleaning for your clothing and find your items consistently returned with a strong chemical odor, consider switching cleaners or finding an organic or natural dry cleaning facility.
If you smoke, you can reduce your VOC exposure by quitting the habit (I realize that this is much easier said than done). If you don’t smoke, avoiding secondhand smoke whenever possible is another step you can take.
On a day to day basis, there are a couple of simple ways you can reduce your exposure to VOCs. Considering VOC levels are often magnitudes higher inside than out, if you live in an area with a lower or safe AQI, opening your windows regularly can help reduce VOC concentrations in the home. Additionally, keeping your house at low temperature or humidity can help, as VOCs off-gas more in high temperature or humid conditions.
Certain plants have also been found to reduce indoor concentrations of VOCs. Hemigraphis alternata (aka ‘purple waffle plant’) Hedera helix (aka ivy), Hoya carnosa (aka ‘ porcelainflower or wax plant,’), and Asparagus densiflorus (an evergreen perennial plant) have been found to be some of the most effective plants to remove VOCs.
VOCs: Take home
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a class of gaseous compounds that can cause a variety of human health impacts at high and low levels of exposure. More often than not, VOCs are found at higher concentrations indoors than outdoors.
Concerningly, VOCs are frequently found in home (most often, newer development) and office settings. They are also found in other sources of pollutants, like smoke from cigarettes and exhaust vehicles.
VOC exposure has been associated with lung and throat irritation, headache, nausea, neurological dysfunction, increased risk of developing asthma, and cancer. There is much to be learned about long-term low exposures of VOCs.
If you can, aim to buy low or no VOC products and furnishings, and if working with VOC-emitting chemicals, do so carefully and with proper ventilation. Opening your windows and buying certain plants can also help improve your indoor air quality.
Remember, #environmentalhealthsciencematters! Do what you can.
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