Unfortunately, there is no one international standard or body regarding the classification of VOCs. VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds are carbon containing compounds that easily vaporize or off-gas. Volatile Organic Compounds are naturally occurring in nature and are often noticeable as smells.
Commonly occurring VOCs include formaldehyde, benzene, methylene chloride, perchloroethylene, methyl tert-butyl ether (MBTE), methane (often separately classified), chlorofluorocarbons, styrene and limonene.
The trouble is that our modern industrial age has become addicted to VOCs and it is only relatively recently that we have woken up the inherent health risks of VOCs. Volatile organic compounds are found in a wide range of everyday products: in paints, adhesives, fuels, solvents, coatings, permanent marker pens, polish remover, dry cleaning agents, feedstocks, refrigerants, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, disinfectants, moth repellents, air fresheners, photocopy machines and paint strippers. Basically any household product with a strong ‘chemical’ smell probably contains VOCs.
It is a long list of products that contain VOCs. A few manufacturers are now labeling their products as ‘low VOC’ or ‘VOC free’. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph there is no international standard for defining VOCs so something labeled as ‘low VOC’ could be high in other VOCs not recognized under the VOC guidelines the manufacturer is using.
A common example of the detrimental health effects of VOCs is found in the very real problem called ‘sick building syndrome’. Office workers are subjected to a sealed environment full of VOC emitting items. They get irritated throats, respiratory problems, nausea and dizziness. VOC exposure can cause asthma and allergies. Exposure to certain VOCs has been shown to cause cancer in animals and is widely suspected to do the same for people. Benzene the VOC found in cigarette smoke is definitely carcinogenic.
The US Environment Protection Agency sets out some simple guidelines to reduce the health risks posed by VOCs to people. A lot of it is common sense and not hard to follow.
- Ventilate your house properly. The biggest problem is the build-up of VOCs per billion parts in indoor areas. Open your windows, try not to seal your house off from the outside air. Mixing inside and outside air dilutes VOC concentrations.
- Read the manufacturers recommendations about storage. If you have an opened paint can, leave it in the garage, well away from where people are living.
- If you have any old paints, varnishes, strippers, photocopier ink, polish remover that you don’t use, throw them away in a responsible fashion.
- Don’t bulk buy VOC containing products. You may save a few cents but you are bringing ‘poisons’ into your living spaces, which should be minimized.
- And finally, keep exposure to benzene, methylene chloride and perchloroethylene to a minimum. These are some of the worst VOCs in terms of human health problems. Benzene is present in cigarette smoke, stored fuels and automobile emissions; methylene chloride is present in paint strippers, aerosol spray paints and adhesive removers and; perchloroethylene is present in newly dry-cleaned materials and fabrics.
Another VOC to watch out for is formaldehyde which is often found in adhesives and furniture varnishes. Formaldehyde has been proven to cause allergies in children and respiratory problems for adults. Nowadays there are a few glues and adhesives such as Healthy Bond Adhesive and Sealer which are formaldehyde free. Fuse strand woven bamboo flooring made by Bamboo Mountain uses a formaldehyde free adhesive in the process of making strand woven bamboo. Colombia Forest Products use a soy based adhesive to make their plywood which is formaldehyde free. They use PureBond technology that synthetically mimics the byssal threads used by mussels to cling to rocks. Another great product is the Eimann Fabrik VOC Free Engine Degreaser that cleans dirt, grime, grease and oil from your engine without emitting any toxic VOCs.
Finally, the best advice to give is to live a bit more ‘organically’. Open your windows instead of using air-con. Give up on air-fresheners and air-purifiers. Nails get on just fine without polish; stop using aerosol can products and; cut back on your dry cleaning. In short all that stuff knocking around your house with chemical smell is plain bad for you and seriously bad for your kids. Be especially cautious about cheap furniture and plywood products.