- What are VOCs?
- Where do VOCs come from?
- What are the health effects?
- Why are VOCs a problem inside buildings?
- How can you reduce the levels of VOCs inside a building?
- Is there anything that can be done about VOCs from new building materials or carpeting?
- How long do new building materials and carpeting give off VOCs?
- Should you test for VOCs?
- Where can I get more information?
What are VOCs?
“Volatile organic compound” or VOC is the name given to a substance that contains carbon and that evaporates (becomes a vapor) or “off-gases” at room temperature.
Some examples of VOCs include benzene, methylene chloride, hexane, toluene, trichloroethane, styrene, heptane, and perchloroethylene.
Where do VOCs come from?
VOCs are widely used in household and commercial products. Some cleansers, disinfectants, waxes, glues, cosmetics, dry cleaning products, paints, varnishes and preservatives include VOCs. Gasoline, kerosene and other fuels also contain VOCs. VOCs are also found in cigarette smoke and pesticides.
A number of building and household materials may be sources of VOCs. New carpeting, backing, and adhesives; draperies; wood products that use certain glues, finishes, and waxes in the manufacturing process; and vinyl type flooring and wall coverings may all release VOCs into the air.
What are the health effects?
The ability of VOCs to cause health effects varies greatly. As with other chemicals, the effects of VOC exposure depends on several factors including the type of VOC, the amount of VOC and the length of time a person is exposed.
Exposure to elevated levels of VOCs may cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. Headaches, nausea, and nerve problems can also occur. Some people do not appear to have any kind of reaction to fairly “low” amounts of VOCs, while other people are fairly sensitive.
Studies of animals have shown that breathing some types of VOCs over a long period of time can increase the risk of getting cancer.
Why are VOCs a problem inside buildings?
Although VOCs can be found in both outdoor and indoor settings, the levels of VOCs found indoors can be much higher than those found outdoors. This is because a house or building that doesn’t have enough ventilation does not allow potential indoor pollutants to escape.
Generally, the air outside naturally dilutes VOCs. Outside exposure to VOCs tends to be more common in urban settings from sources like bus or automobile exhaust. For more information about specific pollutants found in outside air in Vermont, contact the Department of Environmental Conservation, Air Pollution Control Division.
How can you reduce the levels of VOCs inside a building?
It is not likely that most of us can live, work, or go to school in an indoor setting that is completely free of VOCs. However, steps can be taken to reduce exposure to VOCs.
- Increase ventilation. In some cases, this can be done by opening the windows and doors to provide fresh air from the outside. Installing exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens and properly maintaining air filter systems will also help with air quality. Use products that contain VOCs outdoors whenever possible; use indoors only if the area is well-ventilated. Combustion fumes can also be a source of VOCs, so make sure furnace, chimneys and stove pipes are in good condition.
- Reduce your use of household chemicals. Consider using cleaning products that do not contain VOCs such as baking soda, vinegar or borax. If you have clothes dry-cleaned, air the clothes outside before bringing them into your home. Some interior paints are solvent-free or contain very low levels of VOCs.
- Buy only the amount you need. Consider purchasing products in smaller quantities or sharing with a friend or neighbor. This also reduces the need for storage.
- Read and follow the directions for use on the label. The maker of the product can supply you with an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) which contains more information about safe use of the product. Keep products in original containers so that safety information is not lost. Do not mix household products, even for disposal, unless specified in directions.
- Store chemical products properly in an area not normally occupied by people, such as a garage or shed, and safely out of reach of children. Examples of these products include paints, pesticides and herbicides, glues, contact cement and solvents.
- Don’t store containers in a closet or basement. Once a product has been opened and re-closed, vapors will escape and find their way into other areas of the house. Over a short period of time, these vapors are not likely to cause significant health problems for most people; however, vapors may cause reactions in some sensitive people. Exposure to vapors over a long period of time (months or years) may cause health problems for many people.
- Safely and legally discard unused chemical products at a hazardous materials collection site.
Is there anything that can be done about VOCs from new building materials or carpeting?
At one time it was believed that increasing heat and enclosing the area with no ventilation would “bake out” the VOCs. In fact, this proved unsuccessful and may actually have increased levels of VOCs.
For a building with a ventilation system (office or new school building, for example), running the ventilation system on full is recommended for at least one to two weeks. That means setting the system for 100 percent fresh air supply and 100 percent air exhaust. Keeping the system on full ventilation for a full month is even better. In private homes, running window fans for at least two to three days will help move the VOCs out of the house.
How long do new building materials and carpeting give off VOCs?
Depending on several factors, VOCs can be given off for days, weeks, months or even years. The following is a list of factors to be considered.
- how long ago the product was made
- how long it was stored or allowed to “off gas” at the warehouse
- how tightly the product was wrapped and how it was delivered
- the amount and type of ingredients in the product
- where the product is used in the building
- the amount of ventilation in the building
- the amount of moisture and the temperature of the air
Should you test for VOCs?
At the present time, there are no national or state standards that are specific for school, office, or home settings. In addition, there are many opinions in the science and medical communities about the degree of risk posed by various amounts of VOCs.
In the absence of standards for indoor settings like homes, testing for VOCs may not give you the information you seek. Rather than using your financial resources to test the air, you may first want to take steps to reduce levels in your home.
If you decide to test your home for VOCs, a list of companies can be found in the yellow pages of the telephone book. One place to look is “Environmental & Ecological Products and Services.” Another heading, such as “Home & Building Inspection Services,” may also provide resources for general indoor air issues. Prices are likely to vary among different companies.
There are standards for VOCs in industrial type settings. In the few times that VOSHA (Vermont Occupational and Safety Health Administration) has tested for VOCs in a school or office, they have rarely found VOCs above the VOSHA standard. VOSHA can become involved only in work settings where there is an employer-employee relationship. They do not conduct inspections or test in private homes.
Where can I get more information?
More information can be obtained from the product manufacturer, on the Internet, or through other organizations and agencies such as Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Environmental Health Association, Vermont Public Interest Research Group or the Vermont Lung Association.
In addition, magazines like Consumer Reports or Popular Mechanics may contain helpful articles. See our Indoor Air Quality Resource Guide for contact information.