I have found over the last few years that surprisingly to many this acronym, VOCs, is new. I say “do you know what VOCs are" in somewhat causal conversation and I often get a blank look. VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. You should know this term because VOCs are everywhere.
I would love to make this subject seem sexy but sadly it’s not. These are organic chemicals that emit from practically everything you buy. These chemicals are hazardous to your health, especially over time. Have you ever bought a beautiful rug and when it was delivered and you unwrapped it and laid it out it smells? Or walked into a freshly painted room and felt a burning sensation in your nostrils, or got a runny nose? Anything that emits an odor is a VOC. Obvious culprits are construction materials, cabinetry, paint, furniture, carpet, pesticides, fungicides, dry cleaning, new car interiors, cleaning products, household cleaners and disinfectants, air fresheners, fragrance, fuel, aerosol sprays, among many others.
When VOCs combine with nitrogen oxides in the air, they form smog. These are the VOCs you can taste and smell, but there are plenty of VOCs that you won’t even notice and are still affecting your health long-term. I experienced the horrible effects of VOCs when I was exposed to them after moving into a condo that was newly renovated and I got sick from the paint and materials used in construction there. I am still feeling the negative effects on my health nearly three years later.
What is insidious and scary about VOCs is that you can’t always smell them or feel that scratch in your throat from them immediately, and they are everywhere. Reading labels is a good way to start understanding what is in the products you buy, but all man made products “off-gas” for a period of time. Off-gassing is the release the chemicals trapped in a product into the air we breathe. A product can off-gas for weeks, months, years or even decades. Be aware of vague components in an article of clothing or a product. Terms like “fragrance” on a label can mean anything because it is a trade secret. If the manufacturer is not listing exactly what is in their product, there is usually something they don’t want you to know. There are companies now that specialize in chemical-free products, especially for cleaning your home, and they are worth the few extra dollars they cost if it means keeping you and your family safe from harsh toxins. And vinegar is the best cleaner and it is cheap!
There are plenty of ways to reduce VOCs, especially in your home. You can invest in a good air purifier, you can avoid cleaners with harsh chemicals, or you can buy your furniture secondhand so it has already off-gassed. There is paint on the market that is zero VOC.
It is hard to take action on a problem from which you may not feel immediate or dramatic negative effects. But VOCs can be harming you and you just don’t know it. They are really not regulated in the US so it is up to the individual to take action to protect themselves, and those they love, by becoming informed and purchasing healthier products.
For more information, please see:
Report by the EPA:
Report by the NIH:
How to reduce VOC in your home:
EPA report on VOC in home:
Blogs about reducing VOCs:
British Columbia Report on VOC: