How to Remove VOCs from Home

vocs and indoor air quality

You can’t remove VOCs completely. You can only lower their levels. So how to remove VOCs from home involves a multi-faceted approach aimed at reducing them as far as possible. This includes understanding VOCs, how to avoid bringing them into the home in the first place, and then lowering them to levels we can live with.

The first step in this process is to be aware of what VOCs are.

What are VOCs? 

“VOCs” is short for Volatile Organic Compounds. In chemistry, an organic compound is any of a large class of carbon based compounds in which one or more atoms of carbon are covalently linked to atoms of other elements, most commonly hydrogen, oxygen, or nitrogen.

Many of these compounds are described as “volatile” because they easily vaporize from their solid or liquid state at room temperature and enter the surrounding air. This process is known as “off-gassing.”

Why are VOCs harmful?

VOCs are known to have adverse effects on human health. But these vary greatly depending on the toxicity of the material. Some are known to be highly toxic but others have no known effect.

Also the extent of the harmful effects depends not only on the level of toxicity but also the length of a person’s exposure to it. Immediate symptoms of exposure to high levels of VOCs include dizziness, headaches, eye and respiratory irritation, and even visual and memory impairment.

Effects over the long term include damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. Some VOCs are known to cause cancer in animals and likely do this in humans too.

The effects of VOCs also depend on the sensitivity of the person exposed to them. People with allergies, or asthma, or particular sensitivity to chemicals will be more affected than others. And young children and the elderly are more likely to be susceptible than other groups.

Concentrations of VOCs in the home

According to the EPA, concentrations of VOCs are up to 10 times higher in the home than outdoors. This makes sense because you would expect the confined nature of the home to cause concentration. You can smell many VOCs in concentration but many are odorless and hard to detect without help. 

So it’s a good idea to monitor your indoor air quality with an IAQ monitor like this

Awair monitor

Awair Monitor.

But monitoring or not, the important thing to know is that VOCs are present in the home to some degree. And now that we know that, we can figure out what to do about it.

Common VOCs

Many VOCs are familiar household names. But don’t let that give you a false sense of security. 

We can describe VOCs individually but we treat them as a group because together they have a cumulative effect on our comfort and health. There is science on the effect of individual VOCs but no science on the effect they have in combination in the home. This is not surprising, since every home is different and there is no way of knowing with any precision exactly which VOCs are present. 

The VOCs we mention here, together with their source products, are common. But this list is far from exhaustive. 

  • Acetone: this is a well known solvent and is used in furniture polish, nail polish remover, shop cleanup, paint remover, varnish, and particleboard.
  • Ethanol: we find ethanol in cleaning products such as dishwasher and laundry detergents, and glass cleaners. It is also found in beer, wine and liquor.
  • Acetic acid: this is associated with vinegar, which on its own is relatively safe because it only contains about 4% acetic acid.
  • Formaldehyde: this is extremely common and is found in lacquers, plastics, and pressed wood products. These include particle board, plywood and fiberboard.
  • Dichloromethane: we find this in aerosol solvents, flame retardants, and paint remover. 
  • Isopropanol: this is a common use solvent and disinfectant. It is readily absorbed by the skin.
  • Carbon disulfide: this VOC is found in chlorinated tap water. It is best dealt with by water filtration.
  • Xylene: this is found, for example, in paint, varnish, and shellac.
  • Benzene: we find benzene in dyes, drugs, detergents, pesticides, synthetic fibers, and plastics. 
  • 1,3-butadiene: this is used in synthetic rubber products, resins, and plastics.
  • Toluene: this is found in glues, stain removers, paint thinners, and nail polish.

The point is that if you have any of these source products in your home, than you have VOCs in your home too.

You can find more about VOCs and their health effects at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

For how long does a VOC off-gas?

Some VOCs, such as those in dry cleaning chemicals will off-gas in a matter of hours. VOCs used in paint will mostly finish off-gassing in 6 months or so. But VOCs used in particle board can off-gas for 20 years or more. So we should take this seriously,  

The VOC home environment

VOCs are just a fact of modern life. 

  • They are present in the building materials that make up the fabric of the home itself. 
  • They are in many products commonly used within the home. 
  • They get generated by some of the things we do.

It is impossible to remove or eliminate them altogether. But it’s important to identify the problem areas. From there we can figure out how to mitigate the situation.

Let’s break down the VOC home environment. This is not an exhaustive analysis but it  illustrates the pervasiveness of the issue.

VOCs in what we wear

VOCs are contained in the solvents used in all parts of the clothes manufacturing process. This is especially so with synthetic materials. They are also used in the process of washing, dyeing and printing natural fabrics, like cotton.  

VOCs in the construction of our homes

VOCs off-gas from sealing caulks, upholstery fabric, vinyl floors, paints, varnishes, carpets, adhesives, and composite wood products (in cabinetry, for example).

VOCs in home and personal care products

VOCs off-gas from cleaning and disinfectant products, cosmetics, moth balls, ozone air cleaners, air fresheners, and fuel from the cars in our garage.

VOCs in the things we do

VOCs off-gas when we cook, use propane space heaters, smoke, store paints and chemicals, use printers, and use wood burning stoves.

VOCs from outside the home

VOCs outdoors are far less concentrated than indoors. But, ironically, we can bring them into the home when we ventilate it. We can also bring in ozone pollution. VOCs from vehicle exhausts and other sources combine with nitrogen oxides to create ozone. 

You can go to AirNow.gov to find ozone levels in your locality.

Factors affecting VOC levels indoors

  • The quantities of VOCs in off-gassing products
  • The rates at which the various off-gassing products emit VOCs
  • The air volume of the home or individual room
  • Infiltration of VOCs from the exterior (for example a home in an area of high road traffic may be affected by exhaust fumes)
  • The rate of ventilation

How to reduce VOC levels in the home

Getting VOCs out of clothes

Hang new clothes out on an old fashioned clothes line in sunlight to allow them to off-gas. Then wash them using a non-toxic, eco friendly laundry detergent.

Do not bring recently dry cleaned clothes into the home until they have off-gassed in the shop

Avoiding VOCs in remodeling and renovation

Building materials are a major source of VOCs. So here are some tips to minimize the problem.

  • Use solid wood as much as possible. Try to avoid engineered products like pressed wood.
  • If you do use engineered wood products, see if you can get them prefinished or take them out of the house to finish them.
  • If you use engineered wood products, seal as many surfaces as possible with a sealer that is certified “low emitting.”
  • Know that exterior grade engineered wood products contain lower emitting VOCs.
  • Use sealants that are labelled “low VOC.”
  • Store building materials and new furniture off-site until they have had time to off-gas.
  • Use maximum ventilation when working on the project.
  • Use paints and other finishes that are labelled “low VOC.”

If possible find materials for your project that carry the GreenGuard certification.

greenguard

Avoid having off-gassing products in the home

  • Do not bring in and use aerosol deodorizers
  • Only bring in paints, cleaners and solvents for immediate use. Keep lids on tight. 
  • Store these types of products in the garage.
  • Remove old VOC containing products from the home.
  • Don’t smoke. Tobacco smoke contains VOCs and other harmful substances.

Ventilation reduces concentrations of VOCs

Make sure that your home and the individual rooms in it have an adequate number of air changes. You want to exchange the relatively polluted air inside with the relatively unpolluted air outside. 

This can be as simple as opening your windows. But, if you have a central air conditioning system, it  can get a bit technical and it’s a good idea to talk to a local HVAC contractor about this.

Use an air purifier to reduce VOCs

The right kind of air purifier will not only remove VOCs. It will also remove other air pollutants that affect indoor air quality. 

Consider these air purifiers:

For the whole house: the Airmega 400

Airmega 400

For individual rooms: the hOmeLabs air purifier.

homelabs air purifier

Or  the Winix 5502 Air Purifier

Winix air purifier

And don’t forget that VOCs are only part (an important part) of overall indoor air quality

Conclusion

There is nothing you can do that will really eliminate VOCs from your home. But there are many things that you can do to minimize their presence, such that you do not have to worry about them.

VOCs and Indoor Air Quality

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