What are VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)?

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Twice in the past week I have received emails from readers asking “What are VOCs?” Seems I mention them quite often in my posts about toxic products but haven’t really covered what they are. Hopefully this post will remedy that and I can link to it in future articles when discussing VOCs.

Volatile Organic Compounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, are gasses emitted by certain solids or liquids. They are not made of one particular chemical but are instead from a variety of ingredients, each of which can have varying affects on the human body. These include benzene, perchloroethylene (used for dry cleaning), methylene chloride, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Not all VOCs are equal. Some are made in a laboratory and some occur naturally, and they are often found in paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, lumber, electronics (computers, printers, etc), art supplies, and wallpaper. That’s not a full list; VOCs can be found anywhere and in tons of different products we all use every day.

The EPA has found that indoor concentrations of VOCs can be 2 to 5 times greater than those found outdoors, and can even be up to 1,000 times greater. Exposure can result in respiratory tract irritation, headaches, nausea, central nervous system disruptions, damage to internal organs, and dizziness. Some VOCs cause cancer in animals, meaning that they probably cause cancer in us humans, too.

While VOCs are regulated to some degree, as with everything else it’s up to us to reduce our exposure to these toxic chemicals whenever possible. The most important thing you can do is to ventilate spaces when knowingly working with products which emit VOCs. This includes opening windows, working outdoors, not storing closed containers in your home, and using fans to circulate fresh air. You can go one step further and look into plants that clean the air inside your home as well as always use a nontoxic or no/low-VOC alternative if you can.

Unfortunately the world we live in is full of chemicals which can cause us damage and even kill us. That’s why it is vital for us to work to eliminate them from our lives when we can. It may not always be possible to differentiate between those things that emit VOCs and those that don’t, but doing your due diligence when investigating paints and other products can go a long way towards helping you reduce exposure to these toxic ingredients.

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