What are they?
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that readily release vapors at room temperature. They can come from both natural and synthetic sources, but it's the ones found in a variety of manmade consumer products that are cause for concern in the home—they're a major contributor to indoor air pollution.1 Some of the most hazardous VOCs include formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and styrene.
What's wrong with them?
Immediate health effects include eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual problems and memory impairment,2 and even relatively low levels of VOCs in the home are linked to symptoms.3 Long-term health effects associated with exposure to VOCs include asthma,4 eczema,5 poor sperm quality6 and even lung cancer.7 In fact, several VOCs, such as benzene and formaldehyde, are recognized carcinogens, and others are suspected carcinogens.8
Where can you find them?
Thousands of products can release VOCs, including paints and coatings, paint strippers, wall and wood fillers, building materials, adhesives and sealants, carpets and other flooring, wall coverings, wood preservatives, cleaning products, air fresheners, moth repellents, pesticides, craft supplies, office equipment such as photocopiers and printers, dry-cleaned clothing, aerosols, cigarettes (including e-cigarettes) and automotive products. Often, you can detect VOCs by their strong odor—think fresh paint or new cars and carpets—but some VOCs are odorless, or their smell is masked by other chemicals.
What can you do about them?
Although there are regulations in place in the UK, US and other countries regarding VOCs in specific products, you can still easily be exposed to potentially harmful levels of VOCs in many circumstances, for example, if you're decorating or renovating your home, or if you've had new carpets installed. And VOCs can 'outgas' from products for months or even years. It's impossible to escape VOCs completely, but check out our top tips on the opposite page for ways to minimize your exposure.
How to reduce your exposure to VOCs
Choose nontoxic paint, varnishes, fillers and other decorating products with the lowest VOC levels you can find.
• In the UK, try Lakeland Paints (www.lakelandpaints.co.uk), Earthborn (earthbornpaints.co.uk) or Nutshell (www.nutshellpaints.co.uk).
• Bioshield (www.bioshieldpaint.com), Ecos Paints (www.ecospaints.net) and EarthSafe Finishes (www.earthsafefinishes.com) are good options in the US. • If shopping at your local home improvement store, always check the VOC content on the label. If you are using products that state they contain VOCs, use them as quickly as possible, keep them tightly sealed when not in use, and make sure the space is well ventilated.
Consider getting an air purifier, such as those made by Swedish company Blueair (www.blueair.com), to remove harmful VOCs from your indoor environment.
Choose natural, nontoxic cleaning products, cosmetics and toiletries.
Sites like www.lovelula.com, www.naturisimo.com, www.biggreensmile.com, www.vitacost.com and www.thrivemarket.com are good places to look. Or check out WDDTY's Healthy Shopping pages each month.
Opt for wood, tile or other hard surfaces if you're installing new flooring, and avoid toxic adhesives.
•If you do want carpet, choose untreated, natural materials with low-VOC backings, such as Brockway's Rare Breeds wool carpet collection (www.brockway.co.uk). •If you live in the US, try Earthweave (www.earthweave.com)—it makes 100 percent natural wool carpets with hemp, cotton and jute backings and a natural rubber adhesive.
•If you want more choice, check out German company Vorwerk's range of synthetic health-conscious carpets, ideal for allergy sufferers (www.vorwerk-carpets.com). Many have been awarded various 'green' labels and top marks for low VOC emissions.
•Ask for carpet to be 'stretched in' when fitted rather than glued to the floor, and choose low-VOC underlay.