September 6

What Are VOCs and How Do They Impact Indoor Air?


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What Are VOCs and How Do They Impact Indoor Air?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) make up a surprisingly long list. The term can refer to any chemical with carbon in it that likes to vaporize, but when you talk about indoor air quality, VOCs take on extra meaning. You're much more likely to breathe in VOCs indoors than outdoors, and while many of them are harmless, some are most definitely not. If you have kids, you may want to remember the following information.

Common Sources

Image via Flickr by Phil Roeder


With so many VOCs out there, you won't have to look hard to find multiple sources at home. These include:

  • Paint
  • Paint thinners and solvents
  • Glues
  • Wood stain and finish
  • Cleaning products
  • Air fresheners
  • Gasoline and other engine fluids
  • Pesticides
  • Dry-cleaned clothes

Health Effects

Not every VOC is harmful, and for the most part, if you breathe some in now and then, you shouldn't expect any long-term or even short-term effects. The problem comes from breathing in a lot of dangerous VOCs for a long time. Some of the common short-term symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness, and irritation in the throat, nose, and mouth. Long-term effects can include cancer.

If you aren't protecting your mouth and nose when you handle sources of VOCs, you can expect to get the short-term symptoms, but those will fade after a few minutes or up to around an hour. If they continue after that point, you should speak to a doctor right away.

Actions to Take

Image via Flickr by Your Best Digs

If you're worried about the concentration of VOCs in your home and what effect they'll have on your kids, you're not alone, and there's a lot you can do. The suggestions on the following list are all actions you could take starting today.

  • Do some research. Find out what the labels on your cleaning products and air fresheners say about ventilation, and see what experts are saying about these products online.
  • For your hobbies, apply paint and strong glues only in well-ventilated areas. When painting rooms, use face masks and ventilation. Then wait until the paint dries and the smell fades to go back in.
  • Consider using products that don't emit VOCs in the first place.
  • Get air filters or purifiers for your rooms or for the HVAC system itself.
  • Make sure to store any leftover products like paint and glue in airtight containers or else dispose of them properly.

Keep in mind when you're deciding what to do that paint and wood finishes can release VOCs for years after they dry. It's a much smaller and safer amount than what you'd breathe in when you can still smell the paint or finish, but you'd still be better off reducing the amount even more.

Volatile organic compounds can be completely safe or so dangerous that they're worth worrying about. With so many household sources out there, it's no wonder indoor air has much higher concentrations of VOCs than outdoor air. So if you want to protect your family from carcinogens and maintain a high indoor air quality, you should think about the VOCs you encounter at home and how you can reduce their number.


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