Reducing VOCs

Jun 18, 2010

Yesterday I received a call from a homeowner concerned about volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  After using an epoxy resin (and other VOC-laden building materials), the odors in the home were very strong and his wife stared showing signs of sensitivities.  Fast forward a year and now his wife has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (although I prefer the term “toxicant-induced loss of tolerance or TILT).  They are trying to stay away from the home as much as possible, putting them in a very difficult position.

Here is my general advice:

#1. It’s always best to prevent the problem in the first place by using low VOC products.  These used to be very difficult to find, but now they everywhere.  You really have no excuse for using high emitting products.  For the homeowner’s situation, this advice didn’t help because he already installed all the materials and was unwilling to gut the place (I don’t blame him).

#2. The second best option is outdoor air ventilation.  Unless you live in a really polluted area, VOCs are lower outdoors than indoors.  By introducing outdoor air, it will dilute down the concentration of VOCs indoors.  In coming blog posts, I’ll talk about how to best ventilate.  For some climates, this can simply be accomplished by having your windows open.  The homeowner has done this and has seen a 10 times reduction in the VOC levels.

#3. The final option is to use gas phase air cleaners.  This is the best option when outdoor air isn’t suitable for ventilation.  A few years ago I was teaching a class outside of Mumbai, India and I can say with confidence than outdoor air ventilation would probably make matters worse. (I didn’t see the sun at all during the trip… blocked out by the haze).  For most applications in the US, this is the most expensive approach and yet not the most effective.  In later blog posts I’ll describe what are these “gas phase air cleaners”.

Unfortunately, the homeowner’s wife is still experiencing chemical sensitivities even though the VOC levels are back to the US home average.  If I may borrow from Karl Popper, IAQ projects are either like a Clock or a Cloud.  Some projects are Clocks: well defined and everything makes sense.  Other projects are Clouds: nebulous and not well understood.