If you’re familiar with indoor air quality or have already perused our blog, you likely already understand what VOCs are. VOC stands for ‘volatile organic compound’, which is an organic chemical that can be released (or “off-gassed”) from certain solids or liquids. In terms of residential indoor air quality, VOCs are most commonly associated with building materials, paints and varnishes, new furniture, personal care products, cleaners, pesticides, and more. Exposure to elevated levels of VOCs can result in various health effects depending on the exact chemical compound, the concentration, and duration of exposure. According to the EPA website, some commonly reported symptoms related to VOCs in general are eye, nose, or throat irritation, headaches, lightheadedness, or respiratory issues.
Now that we have a little background, let’s get to the important part: how do you reduce VOC levels in your home?
The most effective way to reduce VOC levels is to avoid them in the first place! There are many ways to make this a reality. One way is to buy used furniture or floor models that have already had time to air out and off gas. Avoiding fragrances in your personal care products is another helpful step. Opting for low or no VOC products can be helpful, but be sure to do some research first to make an informed decision. In this past blog post, Dylan talks about how even “low VOC” or “no VOC” paints can still cause problems. You can reference the SPOT database of low VOC products to make an informed decision.
Another way to manage source control is only buying what you need when it comes to paints or varnishes, and storing any excess products properly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It’s best to keep them in a garage shed outside the living space.
Try using integrated pest management techniques to control or avoid the use of harsh chemical pesticides. When you no longer need pesticides or other household chemicals, dispose of them safely. You can check with your local municipality for nearby hazardous waste collection sites.
Try as you might, it can be difficult to avoid VOCs — especially during a remodel or renovation work. When you can’t avoid high VOC emissions, the best way to get levels back down to normal is ventilation. Flushing out the VOCs by bringing in fresh outdoor air is an effective strategy but might require some planning on your part. It’s best to schedule activities like painting or other renovations in warmer seasons when windows and doors can remain open to increase ventilation. Using an exhaust fan or a box fan in an open window can help to pull contaminated air outdoors. Opening a door or window on the opposite side of the room can help outdoor air get pulled in to “flush out” the room with cross ventilation. There’s a saying in the IAQ industry that goes: “dilution is the solution to indoor air pollution” — meaning that increasing the amount of fresh outdoor air will lower concentrations of indoor contaminants. Open windows just became your new best friend! In a future blog we’ll need to address how to ventilate when outdoor air is highly polluted.
When source control and ventilation aren’t enough, filters or air cleaners using activated carbon or other sorbents can help to mitigate the problem. Standard air purifiers utilize a fabric filter to physically remove fibers and particles, with HEPA being the most efficient. But because VOCs are gaseous (not particles), they cannot be physically removed from the air by a fabric filter. While activated carbon won’t remove physical debris like fibers and particles from the air, they can adsorb and remove many, but not all, VOCs.
In summary, the most important thing you can do to reduce VOC levels in your home is to be a smart consumer — shopping for products with low emissions and avoiding unnecessary chemical applications. When using products like paints, varnishes, or other VOC sources (even “low VOC” or “no VOC paint”), make sure to keep windows and doors open to ventilate the space, and continue to ventilate for a couple weeks after application as well.
Not sure when the air quality is “safe” to go back in after a renovation? Contact us at 312-920-9393 to discuss performing an indoor air quality assessment with advanced instruments.