VOC? What does that mean? The Minnesota Department of Health states that Volatile Organic Compounds are “a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. While most people can smell high levels of some VOCs, other VOCs have no odor. Odor does NOT indicate the level of risk from inhalation of this group of chemicals.”
I’ll bet most of you have heard of formaldehyde. It’s a VOC and considered volatile because it emits a gas at room temperature. As it warms up, more of the chemical off-gasses into a room. (Off-gassing is the natural evaporation of chemicals.) The top three VOC offenders in our home? Carpeting, paint, and furniture and upholstery; all can carry VOCs, such as formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene, just to name a few.
So What’s the Problem with VOCs?
Like many of you, I love spring because it entails throwing open windows, deep cleaning; maybe adding a fresh coat of paint or some other little redecorating project involving new furniture and or area rugs. The Environmental Protection Agency claims Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, often at home. More importantly, they claim that indoor air pollutants can be 2-5 times higher than outdoor air. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. (Environmental Protection Agency)
Chemical off-gassing of VOCs is not good for anyone but there are people at greater risk of major health problems including infants and young children, the elderly and those who already have respiratory problems such as asthma and allergies and those people with higher sensitivity to chemicals in general.
Short Term health effects (Acute) to high levels of VOCs: (Minnesota Department of Health)
- Skin irritations
- Shortness of breath
- Worsening of asthma and allergies
Long Term health effects (Chronic) to high levels of VOCs:
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Central nervous system damage
I do ponder at times the coincidence of my cancer diagnosis, just 3 years after a major renovation of our home back in 2000. We updated our family room and master bedroom — of particular note was the new insulation, high VOC paint, wall-to-wall carpeting and new furniture in the master bedroom — a place where we spent 8 hours a night. All of these factors led to major off-gassing and potential toxic overload.
New carpet – Consumer Reports indicates that 200 chemicals are in the mixtures of gasses released by new carpets. Most are made with agents using toxic synthetic chemicals including artificial dyes, stain and soil repellents, adhesives, moth proofing and flame retardants. (All known to cause loss of memory, respiratory and nerve damage)
Old carpet – Sometimes these can actually be worse than new carpets, in that may still contain chemicals currently banned. They also harbor years of dirt, dust mites, toxic cleaning products, pesticides and solvents.
Tips to Reduce VOCs in Your Carpet Choices
When you can, replace or choose rugs:
Made from wool, sisal, sea grass or jute.
- With the Green Label Plus Certification. They have passed independent laboratory tests for emissions from thirteen notorious chemicals.
- Make sure they are 100 percent organic, pesticide free with NO CHEMICALS applied.
- Consider bamboo, tile, wood and other alternative natural or Eco-friendly flooring options.
For other healthy rug options click: www.naturescarpet.com
Tips for Cleaning Rugs
To clean rugs with non-toxic products, click here to see my full list and instructions.
- Dry-Baking Soda
- Liquid-White Vinegar
- Professional non toxic companies
I love colored walls (!) but I learned a long time ago:
- Traditional paints can off-gas for up to 7 years.
- Darker colors of paint tend to contain higher levels of VOCs.
- There seems to be some dispute as to paint manufacturer who claim zero VOCs; but the one thing experts seem to agree on is that using paints with lower VOC levels is making a healthier choice. (Consumer Reports)
Tips to Reduce VOCs in Your Paint Choices
- Use a Sealing Primer such as AFM Safecoat Hardseal (for nonporous surfaces) or Safe Seal (for porous surfaces). A little pricey, but it does a great job at blocking VOCs, including formaldehyde.
- Try painting during seasons when you can open windows and run fans. The drier air will draw out the VOCs faster.
Low VOC Paint Company Recommendations
My favorite paint for the past five years has been Mythic. It’s a bit more expensive but the colors are wonderful and it’s much healthier. www.mythicpaint.com
For babies and nurseries: I’m hearing a lot of good stuff here: www.lullabypaintscom.
They have been endorsed by several consumer advocacy groups along with Parents, and Healthy Child, HealthyChild. Their paints include food grade ingredient pigments imported from Europe meeting high environmental standards.
Furniture and Upholstery
Manufactured wood, such as plywood and particleboard, contains high formaldehyde. Plastic furniture made of PVC is also high in VOCs.
Tips to Reducing VOCs in Your Furniture and Upholstery Choices
- For new items, consider purchasing floor models which have already off-gassed while sitting in a store.
- New items-try to select low or no VOC products.
- Choose solid wood items with low VOC finishes (polyurethane is usually high in VOCs)
- For expensive furniture you may already have with formaldehyde, use a non toxic sealer. Can be used on floors with polyurethane as well.
- Purchase during a time of the year when you can set it outside to “air” for a period of days, allowing much of the off-gassing to occur, especially if it’s warm.
- Wool and cotton, rather than synthetics (made from chemicals) are healthier upholstery fabrics.
- Sprinkle baking soda liberally over fabric you know doesn’t contain natural fibers. Let sit for an hour and vacuum with a HEPA vacuum cleaner.
Here is a wonderful link for choosing safer furniture products: www.watoxics.org
Help! So I have new carpets, new furniture, and the walls were recently painted!
All is not lost! We’ve all been in these situations. Here are some great tips I’ve found to be very helpful!
Add any of these top six air-cleaning plants to any room with VOCs:
- Areca Palm-the MOST efficient air purifying plant
- Bamboo Palm
- Rubber Plant
- Peace Lily
- Boston fern
- Invest in a good HEPA filter vacuum and HEPA air purifier for needed areas. (HEPA vacuums and purifiers are not all the same so do your research.)
- Increase your ventilation – Open your windows whenever you can and air rooms out.
- Increase your family’s natural ability to detoxify toxins. Add extra vitamins E, C, D-3 and the Bs to enhance detoxification. Curcumin and alpha-lipoic acid also move things along.
- Maintain climate control – Chemicals tend to off-gas when it’s warmer and more humid so de-humidifiers are also a good idea.
And, take your shoes off!
Remove your shoes when coming indoors. A study from the University of Arizona found 421,000 units of bacteria on the outside of a shoe including meningitis, pneumonia and E. Coli. Yikes! Toxins and herbicides can last up to a week, plus removing shoes saves on the wear and tear on our floors, and keeps them cleaner.
I invite you to join me in making simple, everyday changes in improving our home air quality. We don’t have to do it all at once; things can get expensive, I know. Start with the simple, inexpensive steps, like taking your shoes off, opening windows and turning to baking soda and white vinegar for cleaning. Be well, everyone!
Environmental Protection Agency
Green Building Supply
Minnesota Department of Health
Mother Nature Network-Matt Hicknian (5/17/10)
San Francisco Gate-Paige Turner
Today’s Homeowner-Julie Day
Washington Toxics Coalition
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