Health Effects of VOCs
Most people don’t give this topic much thought until VOC related symptoms seem to not go away and doctors give a diagnosis like “Most likely environmental” your environment is where you spend your time. Unless you live in some type of a fresh air environment like a tepee, for most people the environment you live in would be your home and to a lesser degree your workplace. Some of the health effect of VOCs on humans is eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some VOCs from testing are known to cause cancer in animals and are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.
Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness. Volatile organic compounds appear also to be significant risk factors for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- See mayoclinic diseases-conditions; website
- See Association of domestic exposure to volatile organic compounds with asthma in young children; PDF
Varying Effects of VOC’s
The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. Some have a strong smell and some no smell at all. The extent of health effects of VOCs on humans will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed and where they are exposed i.e. floors, bed mattresses, play toys etc.
Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment, unconsciousness and death are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to high levels of VOC’s. When I was young and stupid, I was doing some wood repairs using high VOC contact cement (no longer sold) working in a basement, the fumes were pretty strong, after about 15 minutes I felt light headed and started up the stairs for some fresh air, I staggered and almost collapsed, was close to loosing consciousness and barely made it up the stairs.
Strong Evidence Linking VOCs to Asthma and COPD
Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood in the developed world and its prevalence appears to have increased significantly over the past 30 years. Observations indicate that the rising prevalence has coincided with modifications to the home environment such as the introduction of soft furniture, fitted carpets, air conditioning, and central heating. The indoor environment should be of crucial importance since infants and elderly often spend more than 80% of their time indoors at home. The newer the home and the more insulated and air sealed the home is the greater the concern because the VOC’s are effectively trapped inside.
At present, not much is known about at what levels health effects of VOCs on humans occur. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans. To better understand the links from VOCs to asthma and COPD, doctors are using a new type of testing in which they measure the VOCs exhaled from patients lungs. This tells them what VOCs are present and at what levels in their bodies to help diagnose or determine the cause of asthma and COPD.
- See Clinical Use of Exhaled Volatile Organic Compounds in Pulmonary Diseases: A Systematic Review, 2012
- Search EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) (a compilation of electronic reports on specific substances found in the environment and their potential to cause human health effects)
Common Sources of VOCs
Household products, including:
- paints, paint strippers, fingernail polish remover
- solvents like Isopropyl Alcohol or Acetone
- wood preservatives and finishes like polyurethane (can take months to fully cure)
- aerosol sprays like cooking oils and hair sprays
- cleansers and disinfectants
- laundry scent chemicals, and fabric softeners
- moth repellents and air fresheners
- stored fuels and automotive products such as a fuel oil tank used by some heating systems (especially in basements and garages)
- hobby supplies, glues etc.
- dry-cleaned clothes or items
- pesticides, insect or pest control products like ant traps or rat poisoning
- home furnishings containing manmade materials such as synthetic fabrics, foams, rubbers, plastics, particle board – fake wood, laminates.
- home building materials such as OSB or flake board commonly used for sheathing, subloors and roof decking, synthetic carpets and pads, synthetic flooring materials, etc.
- office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper
- graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions.
Some Steps to Reduce VOC Exposure
Hire a professional or do your own evaluation your home for the presence of VOC’s that may be part of the problem. If warranted you may want to do some VOC testing to confirm your evaluation finding or what you did not find. Be sure to read for label precautions on any household products you suspect may be adding to the problem.
Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials within the home. Formaldehyde, one of the best known VOCs, is one of the few indoor air pollutants that can be readily measured. Identify, and if possible, remove the source. This is not always possible as it it often used in materials in the construction of the house such as OSB sheathing and laminated wood products, which can outgas VOC’s for many months or years after construction. If not possible to remove, reduce exposure by using a sealant on all exposed surfaces of paneling and other furnishings. Use natural integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides.
Improve the fresh air ventilation in your home, this can be done in many ways. Simply opening the windows is a great way to start. If you can’t feel any air blowing through the windows on windy days, when the weather is cold you can crack a few windows for some fresh air, especially if the house is tightly wrapped and air sealed. Fresh air ventilation is always important, especially so in tightly sealed, energy efficient homes that are closed up much of the year. Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs.
- Use household products according to manufacturer’s directions.
- Make sure you provide plenty of fresh air when using these products.
- Throw away unused or little-used containers safely; buy in quantities that you will use soon.
- Keep out of reach of children and pets.
- Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.