The Hidden Killer in Our Homes
Every day in our homes we are surrounded by chemicals releasing harmful gases. Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) are a large group of carbon based compounds that emit a high level of gas at room temperature. These VOCs are widely used in household products such as cleaning and varnishing products, pesticides, building materials, furniture, foam memory mattresses, vinyl, hobby materials, paints and paint strippers, printers and cosmetics. For a more in detailed explanation of VOCs look at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.
According to the EPA contamination of several carbon based compounds was found to be between two and five times higher inside the house compared to outside. Further, the high level of pollution was noted to persist for quite a while after, in the case of household products, the culpable items had been used.
What Health Issues Can VOCs Cause?
The type and extent of the health problems caused are affected by the concentration and type of gas given off and the length of exposure. Common problems include ear, nose and throat irritations, headaches, loss of coordination, sickness, skin allergies, and memory impairment. These are all conditions that may arise immediately on exposure to a VOC. People who already have respiratory and allergic problems will be at a greater risk.
Scientists from Harvard University and Sweden’s Kalstad University carried out the first scientific experiment of its kind to link the exposure to harmful chemicals found in normal household goods and products with the increase of allergic reactions and asthma. This research was carried out on 400 toddlers and preschool children and was reported in October 2010 in the journal of Public Library and Science (PLOS ONE).
Scientists found a link between those children who slept in bedrooms containing high levels of propylene glycol and glycol ethers (PGEs) and a two to fourfold increase in the levels of allergies and asthma. PGEs have a wide range of application most commonly in deodorant sticks and even as an emulsification agent in Angostura bitters used in popular bar cocktails. Don’t worry, your Manhattan’s alcohol content is still the main health issue.
PGEs are a type of VOC commonly used in varnishes, water based paints and cleaning products. PGEs are less volatile than a lot of other VOC’s but even with the lower levels of gas release they were still proven to have a considerable harmful effect. According to some scientists the Harvard/Kalstad study may go some way to explain the huge increase in levels of asthma and allergies that have been seen since the 1970s.
Long term exposure to high levels of VOCs can also cause damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Many VOCs are also known to be carcinogenic.
What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves From the Harmful Effects of VOCs?
The best health protection against VOCs is obviously to limit your exposure to them. Monitors that will check the levels of VOCs in your home can be purchased. There are two main ways that limitation of exposure can be achieved:
- Get rid of or decrease the number of goods and products that contain VOCs. There are often more natural non VOC containing alternative products. It is possible to obtain water based glues and adhesives, a VOC-free mattress and green household paint alternatives. Further, if you have to use products containing VOCs then always read the instructions and never keep storage containers containing these chemicals once they are opened. Household furnishings carpets and vinyl tend to be more problematic as they can constantly give off low levels of chemicals, especially when new. The key again is to buy more natural furnishing and wooden floors if possible. If you are purchasing new furniture that does contains VOCs then attempt to ensure that it has been in storage or a showroom for a while after it has been manufactured.
- Ventilation of the home is the other method of reducing the levels of VOCs inside the house. Windows and doors should be opened whenever possible and in all instances where household chemicals containing VOCs are being used. Further high levels of heat and humidity will increase the amount of gases that the VOCs give off so this should also be considered.
In the bigger picture VOCs are also harmful for their effect on the ozone layer and resulting environmental issues. The more knowledge society has the more it can vote with its dollars to put pressure on manufacturers to reduce the use of VOCs in products. In the effort to protect our environment as well as our families consumers can also vote with their feet and patronize establishments offering more natural and alternative products.