Volatile Organic Compounds: Health Effects & Reducing Risk

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be found in cleaning and household products, building materials, and other sources. These chemicals can have adverse short and long term health effects so care should be taken to minimize exposure to them.

Health Risks

The health effects of VOCs depend on the level, frequency and length of exposure. Those who suffer from respiratory problems, such as asthma, are more susceptible to the risks, as are young children, the elderly, and people who have a heightened sensitivity to chemicals.

The immediate, short-term effects of exposure to VOCs include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, loss of coordination, nausea/vomiting, loss of memory, visual disorders and an increase in asthma symptoms. The risks of long-term chronic exposure to VOCs include liver damage, kidney damage, damage to the central nervous system, and cancer.

Currently, most studies have been concentrated on the health risks inherent to exposure to a single chemical. As such, there is less known about the risks and effects due to exposure to a combination of chemicals. However, if you experience any of the above symptoms, you should take the steps to reduce the VOC levels within you home.

Reducing the Risk of VOCs in Your Home

The first step is to identify products within your home that emit VOCs. Look at the ingredient label of household products for chemicals like: formaldehyde, benzene, perchloroethylene, methylene chloride, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chlorocarbons, aliphatic hydrocarbons, ethyl acetate, glycol ethers, and acetone. These chemicals are some of the more potent VOCs and many are used in common household products and building materials.

If you are unable to completely remove these products from your home, take the steps below to help reduce their potential health risks.

  • Always follow the manufacturer’s directions
  • Increase ventilation whenever products are in use. If the directions require a “well-ventilated area,” consider using the product outside or near an exhaust fan.
  • Buy limited quantities and throw away any unused product.
  • Keep the temperature and the humidity as low as is comfortable to reduce the release of gas.
  • Store chemicals properly and make sure that they are out of reach of children and pets.
  • Unless directed by the manufacturer’s instructions, never mix products.
  • Consider doing any major home renovations when the house is unoccupied or in seasons where it is comfortable to keep doors and windows fully open.
  • Check your dry-cleaning. If your clothes are returned with a strong chemical odor, make sure that you take your business elsewhere.
  • Make your home a smoke-free environment.

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