Everything You Need to Know About VOCs

If you’ve spent any amount of time researching green living and healthy product choices for you and your children, you’ve probably heard of VOCs. Short for Volatile Organic Compounds, these chemicals are present in everything from cosmetics to cleaning products — with questionable side effects.

As a conscientious parent, you definitely want to avoid anything that could have a negative impact on your families health or the environment. But VOCs can be hard to identify, because there are literally hundreds of them.

What are the true effects of VOCs? Which ones should you unequivocally avoid and how can you avoid them? And why are they so bad, anyway?

Read on to learn all you should know about VOCs and how you can shop for your family more sustainably.

What are Volatile Organic Compounds?

The name says it all. Despite being derived from natural sources, these chemicals are extremely volatile, meaning they react and transform when they come into contact with other chemicals. (Take note: never automatically trust labels that advertise “naturally derived ingredients” because VOCs are technically natural, but still harmful.)

VOCs are often found in ingredients that are used as solvents (i.e. a liquid in which a solute is dissolved), disinfectants, or adhesives. These products may not be inherently toxic, but the VOCs released during use or over time can cause respiratory or neurological illness for you or your children.

That’s because VOCs are prone to evaporation, i.e. they change from liquids to gases. Some can even sublime (transform from a solid to a gaseous state). These processes are often triggered by heat or light. When VOCs shift into a gaseous state, they combine with free oxygen molecules in the air. This reaction can create:

Formaldehyde: In its purest state, this chemical is a gas with the chemical formula CH2O. As you might guess from the formula, formaldehyde naturally occurs in nature and in fact, plays a major role in our metabolism. However, atmospheric exposure has been linked to severe irritation, neurological effects, and even cancer. It is a known carcinogen recognized by OSHA.

Ozone: You may think of this as the protective layer of the upper atmosphere, but it’s also a highly reactive allotrope of oxygen. Its formula is O3, which can easily emerge when VOCs enter the air and react with nitrogen oxides (especially on sunny days). Near ground level, ozone is highly polluting and is known to cause respiratory distress.

What Types of Products Contain Volatile Organic Compounds?

There are hundreds of VOCs, used to do everything from helping paint dry to removing paint, from lubricating auto engines to making your home smell good. Many household and cleaning products contain VOCs:

  • Cleansers
  • Dry-cleaning chemicals
  • Paints and varnishes
  • Paint strippers and adhesive removers
  • Automotive fuels and fluids
  • Moth repellants and pesticides
  • Printer and copier ink
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Permanent markers
  • Cosmetics and personal care products (especially deodorants, hairsprays, etc.)
  • Air fresheners

The VOCs evaporate or sublimate from the product as it dries or reacts with the atmosphere. If you’ve ever experienced dizziness or a headache after using a Sharpie or cleaning your countertops, VOCs are why.

And unfortunately, they are longer-lived than you might imagine. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs can persist in the atmosphere for hours or even days after using the product. Indoor air has a concentration of VOC pollutants about 2-5 times higher than outdoors. Immediately after painting or paint-stripping, that number can jump to 1000% more VOCs than are present outside!

The Top VOC-Releasing Ingredients to Avoid

Many VOCs have relatively minor health effects, although you likely still don’t want them around your children. Some, though, can be seriously damaging. Here are some of the top offenders:

Methylene chloride is used in many “remover” products, such as stripping solutions for paints or adhesives. Spray paint contains it as well. This carcinogenic substance converts to carbon monoxide, a highly toxic and colorless gas. Even in small quantities, methylene chloride’s gaseous emissions can cause headaches, cognitive impairment, and trouble with vision and breathing.

Benzene is a known carcinogen found in many fuels and paint supplies. Unlike many other chemicals, there is no safe exposure level for benzene. It is particularly damaging to the blood and bone marrow, leading to anemia, compromised immunity, and leukemia.

Perchloroethylene is the “dry cleaning” chemical, and it’s been linked to cancer in animal studies. Many people have also experienced respiratory irritation when encountering this chemical. As many of our dry-clean-only garments are formal wear, we often store them in closets for months, where they slowly release VOCs. Some dry cleaning services are very good about recapturing perchloroethylene and removing it from the clothing — choose those cleaners and never accept clothes if they smell like chemicals.

What are the Health Effects of Volatile Organic Compounds?

As mentioned, VOCs are famous for causing respiratory distress. Many people also experience watery eyes and a runny nose after inhaling VOCs. However, VOCs aren’t just causing a temporary case of the sniffles. As many, many products contain VOCs, the irritation can quickly become a chronic issue.

Worse, many VOCs have neurological effects, either directly or by creating formaldehyde or ozone. People with persistent exposure to VOCs have experienced headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, delirium, and cognitive impairment.

And of course, the longer your or your child’s exposure to VOCs, the higher your risk of cancer, as well as liver or kidney disease as your bodies attempts to remove the toxins.

What Can I Do to Avoid VOCs?

Thanks to the rising concern and robust research about VOCs’ negative impact, many companies are responding to the pressure and minimizing their use of VOC-releasing ingredients. Look for products labeled as Green Guard or Green Seal safe. Although these primarily describe the product’s ozone-producing potential, they’re still a good place to start.

As paint is one of the top sources of household VOCs, opt for low- or no-VOC paint. You can now find VOC-free alternatives for many other cleaning and personal care products for yourself and your children.

Unfortunately, some products simply don’t have VOC-free alternatives. If you must use one of these products (e.g. certain adhesives and automotive fuels):

  • ONLY use it in a well-ventilated area.
  • Open the window and use a fan to improve air circulation.
  • Consider wearing a ventilator or face mask (especially if the product label recommends it!)
  • Safely discard any used product rather than leaving open containers around.

You also may be able to avoid some common sources of VOCs. For example, instead of buying air fresheners, invest in some high-quality soy candles with essential oils. (Avoid anything labeled as containing “fragrance” or “parfum,” as those are phthalates with their own set of health risks.) Instead of using pesticides or synthetic cleansers, keep away ants and clean counters with vinegar.

Also, take note that most furniture and carpets are treated with chemicals before being shipped out. After you unwrap them, they begin venting VOCs. (You may have noticed that “new furniture” smell.) Air out these items in a well-ventilated, dry space for at least a few days before bringing them into your home.

Wrapping Up

With so many VOCs out there in literally thousands of products, they may seem like unavoidable pollutants and toxins. Don’t lose heart: thanks to plenty of research proving VOCs’ toxic health effects, many companies are reducing their use of VOC-releasing ingredients. Plus, you have choices to reduce your exposure. In cases where you must purchase a VOC-containing product, always follow the label instructions, wear protective gear, and work in a well-ventilated space.

And as a consumer and parent, you have purchasing power as well. The more we consciously choose to buy from health-conscious companies that avoid VOCs, the more we push a shift toward a low-VOC future.

This article is inspired by an interview with Martin Wolf, the Director of Sustainability & Authenticity at Seventh Generation, a VOC-free and eco-friendly household products company.

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