Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Many people have heard about VOCs, but what are they and where do you find them?
VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, are carbon-based organic chemicals which evaporate (off-gas) at room temperature.
VOCs are common and can be found both indoors and outdoors, particularly in polluted air. They can be man-made or naturally occurring.
VOCs are a broad group and while some should be avoided, others are not known to cause any issues for most people. But some people may be allergic or sensitised to some VOCs.
People with respiratory problems such as asthma, young children, older people, and those with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and symptoms.
There is a threshold level of VOCs above which health symptoms usually occur in people. In addition, longer term exposure to VOCs may be more likely to trigger asthma or allergy flare-ups or other respiratory symptoms in some people.
There are VOCs in aerosols, cleaning products, paints, cosmetics, adhesives, pressed wood products, foam, tobacco smoke, upholstery, carpets, textiles, plastics, detergents – and more.
VOCs can emanate from:
|Volatile Organic Compound||Uses||Potential health concern|
|Formaldehyde||Used in the manufacture of resins and plastics, mostly in the wood-products industry and adhesives. Also released from tobacco smoke.||Exposure to low levels irritates the eyes, nose and throat, and can cause allergies affecting the skin and lungs. Higher exposure can cause significant damage, even death. It is also known to trigger or increase asthma including childhood asthma and is a human carcinogen.|
|Ethylbenzene||Primarily used in the production of styrene and synthetic polymers as well as a number of other uses, such as paints and inks.||Eye, throat and respiratory sensitivity can occur at higher levels.|
|Benzene||Used in manufacturing and industrial applications. Other sources include petrol stations and tobacco smoke.||A number of health concerns, particularly when inhaled, which include skin or eye irritation and aspiration hazard.|
|Fragrances||Fragrances may consist of a complex mixture of chemicals and are added to a range of products including cosmetics, cleaning products, air fresheners, and detergents.||Fragrances may trigger symptoms in some people with asthma or allergies.|
|Toluene||Toluene is a common solvent, used in paints, paint thinners, sealants and adhesives. Also found in tobacco smoke.||Inhaling low levels can cause tiredness, confusion and a range of other symptoms such as skin or eye irritation and aspiration hazard.|
|Xylene||A solvent used to manufacture petrol, chemicals, polyester fibre, and to make dyes, paints and insecticides. Also found in tobacco smoke.||When inhaled or absorbed through the skin symptoms can include headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Can also cause skin or eye irritation and aspiration hazard.|
What you can do
You can influence the level of VOCs in your home.
- Buy no or low-VOC products and reduce the number of products in your home that give off VOCs.
- If you do buy new products that may off-gas, consider allowing them to do so before you take delivery, in a spare room or outside.
- Increase ventilation by opening doors and windows or use air purifiers with activated carbon filters or other means to filter VOCs.
- Air fresheners are most likely emitters of VOCs through their fragrances. Although they help mask unpleasant odours, it’s probably best to avoid using them if fragrances or odours trigger your symptoms.
- Keep both the temperature and relative humidity lower. Chemicals will off-gas more under warmer conditions with high humidity.
- If you can, paint and renovate your home when it is unoccupied or during seasons that will allow for additional ventilation.