The Koivu Blog

What are VOCs and do you need to worry?

What are VOCs and do you need to worry?

As homemakers we’ve become more concerned about the dangers that lurk in our houses and the effects they could be having on our families. We regularly see reports in the press about health risks associated with everything from the foods we eat to the furniture we choose. And many of these concerns seem to centre around VOCs.

That’s why this week we’re looking at what VOCs are and whether we are right to be so worried about their health impacts?

Credit link for photo: Image by Foto-Rabe from Pixabay

What are VOCs (volatile organic compounds)?

Fresh paint, air fresheners, cleaning products, permanent markers, petrol. What do they have in common?

They all emit a strong smell thanks to the VOCs they give off.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are chemicals that enter the air at room temperature. Just like water evaporates and becomes steam at its boiling point of 100°C, VOCs give off gases in a normal everyday environment thanks to their much lower boiling point of around room temperature.

VOCs can be found in many common household items such as wooden furniture, mattresses and carpets. Known as off-gassing, fumes from these VOCs will seep into the air, particularly within the first six months of an item’s use, meaning new furniture and soft furnishings you bring into your home emit more VOCs than older ones. Sometimes these chemicals are added as part of the manufacturing process, because of safety concerns such as flammability, or simply to add a scent or fragrance or sometimes they are simply naturally occurring within a material.

Why does this matter?

VOCs have been found to be dangerous to health in both the short term and the long term.

Compounds such as acetone, benzene, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and xylene to name a few, appear in many household items. And once they’ve been brought into our homes, these chemicals emit colourless gases that effectively pollute the air we breathe. And unless ventilation is good these gases will build up over time creating a damaging chemical concoction.

Many of these VOCs have been listed as known carcinogens, irritants and toxicants that can contribute to asthma and other breathing conditions, particularly in children and the elderly. They’re also known to cause dizziness, headaches and nausea.

To add to the issue, not all VOCs released will produce a strong smell, so you may not even be aware that they are hanging around.

How much do we need to worry?

VOCs aren’t a new threat. We’ve known about the health risks of breathing in exhaust from vehicles or hanging around pesticides too much, for years. But what we maybe didn’t realise was that there are vast numbers of these nasty toxins lurking inside our homes too.

The danger of VOCs to some extent comes from the sheer number of items that they are emitted from. They’re added to furniture and mattresses as adhesives and fire retardants and there’s no doubt that they improve the efficacy of cleaning products and paints, but at what cost?

There have been reports that the levels of VOCs in homes have been rising in recent years. This is in part thanks to modern housing regulations and higher quality double glazing meaning houses are less well ventilated and in part thanks to mounting consumerism. And all this is compounded by the fact that we spend a lot more time indoors these days than we ever have before.

Many studies continue to be done into the effects of VOC exposure on infants (from cot mattresses, nappies and plastic toys and bottles), pregnant women, and the population in general. These studies have found that the level of VOCs average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. And where activities such as painting have taken place, or where new furniture or carpets have been introduced, levels can be many, many times higher.

Credit link for photo: Image by Hikaru from Pixabay

What can we do to reduce VOCs in our home?

Experts recommend trying to reduce the levels of VOCs in our homes to improve our health in both the short and long term.

You can do this by:

  • Improving ventilation throughout your home, particularly in rooms that have recently been decorated or which house new furniture
  • Seeking low VOC paints and cleaning products
  • Avoiding smoking in your home
  • Reducing your use of strong-smelling air fresheners, perfumes and aerosols
  • Trying to avoid plastic containers or choosing BPA-free ones
  • Storing open paints, adhesives and fuels in an external shed or garage
  • Choosing low-VOC floor covering options rather than carpets
  • Buying second hand where possible so that the initial off-gassing has already occurred. Or if this is not possible do your research and look for low VOC options.

While it would be almost impossible to reduce VOCs to zero, just a bit of awareness and a few simple steps really can make a difference to your health and the health of your family.

About our low VOC kitchens

It may be good to know that our birch plywood kitchens have recently undergone rigorous toxicity tests to identify VOCs and were found to have some of the lowest levels on the market.

If you’d like more information about these VOC emissions tests and the market-beating low results we received, we’ll happily provide you with the details. Why not send us an email ?