Before testing for VOCs in homes, I do an evaluation of the home. I look for known sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that may be causing the related health effects. What type of building materials is the home made of. I look for the presence of OSB sheathing and OSB components which are boards made with glued fibers, types of materials used for the floor coverings and furnishings. I also evaluate the HVAC systems and available fresh air ventilation in the home.
Fresh Air Sacrificed for Energy Efficiency
In most cases, the newer a home is the more energy efficient it is. The benefits of an energy efficient home come at the sacrifice of fresh air. Think of a ENERGY STAR certified new home as one that is wrapped with cellophane to save energy compared to an average drafty house of days gone by as one wrapped with burlap. Sure a somewhat drafty house does costs a little more to heat and cool. But that’s not the only cost there is to consider, a drafty house has the benefit of fresh air which usually means healthy air. This is especially true in winter months when no windows are opened.
Often the reason I’m called for testing VOCs in homes because children have environmental type respiratory symptoms. After diagnosis the child’s doctor will sometimes say the symptoms are likely due to environmental surroundings i.e. your house. When evaluating the home I pay close attention to the furnishings of the children’s rooms. I also check play areas for children’s plastic toys, ladders with slides, pedal cars, play stoves and play sets. often made with plasticizers that out-gas VOCs.
Synthetic furniture and carpets are more common sources of VOC out gassing. The newer they are the worse they are in terms of out-gassing of VOCs. I believe another important item to always consider is the mattresses. Think about how close your face is mattress or even a foam pillow your head may be on. Different foams used to make mattresses and pillows have varying degrees of out-gassing. A solid full natural latex mattress is expensive but does not out-gas VOCs and it will last +20 years and are the most comfortable of mattresses. Children’s and crib mattresses are often made of cheap foam that out-gases VOCs. Also foam carpet pads are a likely source, again the natural fiber carpets and pads are more expensive but do not out-gas VOC’s.
Measurement for VOCs in Indoor Air
After an evaluation I discuss with the homeowners what types of testing I would recommend and for volatile organic compounds in the home based on the age of the house and what I saw. We also talk about where to place the tests. If there is a concern for children the test devices should be placed where the kids spend the most time, bedrooms and family rooms. Kids are, usually near the floor, toddlers and infants are often lying or crawling on the carpets and floors, the out gassing of floor items will be much higher near the floor than at counter top or ceiling height, You may not want to hang the test device from the ceiling.
Quantitative knowledge about the VOCs that are present inside a home can only be determined by testing and depends on how they are measured. Testing for and measuring all VOCs that are present in a home is practically impossible as there are so many different compounds and testing varies greatly for different types of compounds. For example, benzene and toluene are measured by a different method than formaldehyde and other similar compounds. The range of measurement methods and analytical instruments is large and will determine the sensitivity of the measurements as well as their selectivity or biases. Multiple locations and types of testing can end up being quite an expensive for a homeowner.
VOC Test Results?
It’s important that any test results or statement about VOCs needs to be accompanied by a detailed description of where and how the VOCs were tested and measured so that the results can be interpreted correctly by a professional. In the absence of such a description, the test results or statement would have limited practical meaning or value. To see a sample VOC Air Test Report download PDF report here: Sample-VOC-Report.pdf
Choice of building materials, floor coverings and furnishings when buying, building or remodeling a home can have a significant impact on the volatile organic compounds in the home and health effects on occupants. Reducing the concentration of VOCs indoors can be accomplished in a number of ways. Removal of VOC out gassing materials and products and good “fresh air” ventilation are the two best ways. For indoor air quality, ALL organic chemical compounds whose compositions give them the potential to evaporate under normal atmospheric conditions are considered VOCs and should be considered in any assessment of indoor air quality impacts.
There are many online sources of information on volatile organic compounds in the home and indoor air quality and the sources that contribute VOCs. For your benefit, we have listed some of the best places to find more in-depth information on these topics, and to gain further insight into how to reduce the volatile organic compounds in the home and improve your indoor air quality.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Indoor Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Health
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Indoor Air Quality, Organic Gases (Volatile Organic Compounds – VOCs)
U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health, Tox Town
Minnesota Department of Health, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in Your Home
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Indoor Air Quality
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
World Health Organization, Indoor Air Pollution
California Environmental Protection Agency, Air Resources Board Indoor Air Program
American Lung Association, Healthy Air at Home
U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus, Indoor Air Pollution
National Safety AG Database, Questions about Indoor Air Quality
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Hazards & Health Effects, Mold
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mold
U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus, Molds
Claudia S. Miller, M.D., M.S. is an allergist/immunologist and Tenured Professor at the University of Texas School of Medicine at San Antonio. She researches the underlying environmental causes of disease and teaches the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of environmentally-induced or exacerbated illnesses.
Breathe California of the Bay Area
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Hazards & Health Effects, Air Pollution & Respiratory Health
American Lung Association, Health House
Toxic Air Pollutants
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Air Toxics
Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, Phenol
Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, Benzene
Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, Formaldehyde
Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, Toluene