VOCs: Exposure Symptoms and Common Sources

There are plenty of obvious sources of indoor air pollution like dust and pet dander. But what about VOCs? Go beyond the acronym to find out what volatile organic compounds are, what causes VOC spikes, and the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions our technicians hear every day.

What Are VOCs?

VOC stands for volatile organic compound. Chemically, VOCs are organic materials further defined as having a high vapor pressure and low water solubility. Hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur and other natural chemicals can have negative health consequences when combined with other ingredients. Unless you’re a chemical engineer, many of the molecular details won’t matter, but that doesn’t mean homeowners shouldn’t understand how VOCs impact their families.

In practical terms, they’re substances used in many kinds of paints, refrigerants, and industrial chemicals. These

VOCs are found in dozens of household items, including:

  • Paints and lacquers
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Building materials
  • Furniture and upholstery
  • Glues
  • Markers

Volatile Organic Compounds: An Indoor Air Threat

VOC levels indoors are many times (up to ten times) higher than outside. This means homeowners should proactively identify and reduce the use of VOC-based products.

It’s not easy. The EPA notes there are “thousands” of commercially available consumer products that include VOCs. Some, like paint and upholstery, emit VOCs even when not in use.

The gaseous form of VOCs tend to spike when products are in use or undergo a chemical change. That means using an epoxy will immediately release VOCs into a room. Changes in indoor humidity, temperature, or exposure to direct sunlight may also cause paint or upholstery to release VOCs. Even short-term exposure to concentrated levels can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headache, and dizziness.

Other short-term VOC exposure symptoms may include:

  • Allergic skin reaction
  • Rashes
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Always use home cleaning products, paints, lacquers, and other sources of VOCs with the windows open, or take them outside when possible.

Long-term Health Effects of VOCs

Prolonged or repeated exposure to these chemicals can have serious adverse health effects. VOCs have been known to cause cancer in animals, and while more research is needed, there’s a growing body of evidence that some types of VOCs cause cancer in humans.

If you are consistently exposed to any of the chemicals listed below or similar compounds, talk to your healthcare provider about proactive solutions to mitigate cancer risks.

  • Paint and paint strippers
  • Varnishes
  • Pesticides
  • Gasoline
  • Cosmetics
  • Office printers and copiers

Check product labels and warnings for two of the most dangerous carcinogenic VOCs, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride.

5 Ways to Lower Risk of VOC Exposure

Households should take active measures to mitigate exposure to VOCs, especially if occupants have underlying health or respiratory conditions like asthma.

1. Do more than crack open a door while you clean or paint. Whenever possible, use VOC products outside, in an open garage, or with fans blowing contaminated air outside through open windows.

2. Follow the manufacturer’s usage and storage instructions.

3. Store any product that may contain VOCs in a shed or garage and never indoors.

4. Don’t mix household cleaning products. Mixing cleaning supplies may cause chemical reactions that produce more VOCs or increase toxicity.

5. Keep all sources of VOCs away from children, including cleaning supplies. Buy only the amount you need to reduce the number of chemicals and containers in your home at any given time.

VOCs: Frequently Asked Questions

Like any indoor air quality issue, volatile organic compounds raise many questions from concerned families. Below are three of the most commonly asked questions:

At what level are VOCs dangerous?

VOC levels are measured by parts per million, or PPM. In most cases, you’ll need an air quality testing kit to accurately measure VOC levels in your home. The EPA recommends limiting indoor VOC levels to below 0.5 ppm.

For most individuals, symptoms like headaches and dizziness are the first signs that levels are above the recommended limit.

What does “low-VOC” mean on a product label?

Low-VOC paints and cleaning supplies use a reduced amount of VOC chemicals compared to traditional products. In paint, this means fewer than 100 grams of VOCs per liter. For most cleaning products, low-VOC means 50 grams of VOCs per liter, or less.

Can VOCs cause cancer?

Several studies have linked VOC exposure to certain types of cancer, including lung, nose, and throat cancers. If you’re concerned about a specific type of VOC exposure, these Toxicological Profiles provide more information on health risks.

Clear the Air with One Hour Heat & Air Conditioning

Homeowners can reduce the level of VOCs (and other harmful airborne irritants) in their homes with regular HVAC maintenance and indoor air quality improvements. Changing your air filter every one to three months, ensuring your home is well-ventilated, and regular service appointments all play a role in maintaining excellent indoor air quality. We’re here to help; book an appointment or call (800) 893-3523 today.