Different studies have proven the pivotal role of indoor air quality on our health, nonetheless, we tend to minimize the impact of poor air quality on our well-being. As the time we spend in indoor spaces increases, also our awareness about the consequences of the choices we make should increase all together. In our recent article we looked into CO2 emissions and climate change effects on indoor air quality, in this article we want to go even deeper, focusing on VOCs.
What are VOCs
The acronym VOCs stands for volatile organic compounds and refers to a group of organic
chemicals in the gaseous state or with the tendency to vaporize. VOCs can be found in the atmosphere
and are released from some solids and liquids used for household products – e.g., cleaning products,
paints, and varnishes. They easily pass unnoticed and are extremely toxic. VOCs levels are reported
to be 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. And if you consider the time we spend inside since
the pandemic due to home working or simply relaxing at home, the exposure to indoor air
contaminants is incremented. Our rooms are silently cohabited by toxic substances that can be found
inside the products we bring home every day. Carpets, perfumes, and cleaning products are just
Where can we find VOCs
VOCs category includes a wide range of substances, such as Acetone, Benzene, Methylene Chloride,
Toluene, and Formaldehyde. These substances are toxic for human beings but still so many products we use daily contain them. Indeed, wallpapers and nail polish removers contain Acetone, paints and glues contain Benzene, paint strippers and adhesives contain Methylene Chloride, stain removers contain Toluene, and finally, wooden products manufacture uses Formaldehyde.
Among these chemicals, Formaldehyde should give us all cause for concern due to its use in
agriculture, cosmetics, disinfectants, fumigants, but primarily in wood manufacturing process.
Formaldehyde is largely used in medical laboratories and mortuaries as disinfectant and fungicide,
resulting in the need to limit as much as possible the exposure with medical devices to avoid affecting
the health of healthcare workers. However, the main use of Formaldehyde is in the building
industry. Indeed, resins used for engineered wood products are produced with Formaldehyde, and considering the amount of furniture we have in our homes, this substance poses a great risk for our health.
But what is Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that usually has a strong smell, and can be found in many products,
such as cosmetics and tobacco smoke. Exposure to Formaldehyde varies according to the form it
assumes and usually occurs through inhalation.
Wooden products, such as low-quality furniture, contain this type of VOC, and here is why: products such as like desks, bed frames, and shelving are often made with compressed wood or composite wood. Created at the end of the 1800s due to its mass producibility and affordability, composite wood is formed by using transformed wood fibers mixed with special glue. With heating, high humidity, and agitation conditions, all formaldehyde-based products release this chemical in the air, affecting our indoor air quality, and consequently, our health. But even when a product doesn’t contain Formaldehyde, some substances can produce it too.
How do VOCs affect indoor air quality and our health?
Considered as hazardous substances, VOCs endanger human health given certain conditions, such
as level of exposure and exposure length. However, new products are more dangerous for our
respiratory system since volatile organic compounds still aren’t diluted in the air through release.
Therefore, levels of VOCs are still high and alarming.
Some immediate symptoms of volatile organic compounds are headaches, dizziness, eye and
respiratory tract irritation, visual disorders, and memory impairment. Moreover, some organic
compounds, such as benzene, are carcinogens, while others are “probable human
Due to the effects of the inhalation of these substances, and thanks to research in the field, some
countries introduced regulations to reduce VOCs emissions in the air and at the same time to raise
awareness among the population. As a matter of fact, certification protocols and labeling are
essential to decrease exposure.
The role of certification protocols
In the 1970s in Canada, there was massive use of a building practice named Urea Formaldehyde
Foam Insulation or UFFI. UFFI was a thermal insulation practice that used a low-density foam
that could easily be inserted into walls. After its hardening, it helped in the reduction of heat transfer.
However, after finding out that the Formaldehyde-based resin used in the manufacture of UFFI could
provoke the release of formaldehyde gas, and exposure could affect people’s health, Canada
adopted a prohibition called the Hazardous Product Act. On July 7, 2021, another regulation was
published in the Canada Gazette (Part III), limiting the amount of emissions of formaldehyde that
products can release, and introducing requirements on the industry in the manufacture of products.
China, famous for its bad air quality, has recently presented a new regulation to decrease the release
of VOCs in product manufacturing and distribution, introducing new standards. In addition, it
proposes a ban for products containing high levels of VOCs, such as adhesives and inks.
At European level, the Directive 2004/42/EC, aimed at reducing the emissions of volatile organic
compounds, set a maximum content of VOCs (in g/L) for varnishes and paints. With this Directive,
suppliers must label VOCs contents for products.
France too has presented a new law that requires producers to put a compulsory label
on products that states which degree of VOCs emissions the product has.
The label must be 15mmx30mm in readable letter size and indicate with letters going
from A+ (very low emissions) to C (strong emissions) the number of emissions the product releases
in indoor spaces.
Adopting regulations and introducing requirements for products manufacturing is the best way to
raise awareness about VOCs effects on human health and to reduce the emissions in the air at
international level. However, we can reduce emissions by controlling our buying habits and
informing other people on the consequences of VOCs emissions too.
HOW TO REDUCE VOCs EMISSIONS IN INDOOR SPACES
Verify VOCs levels on labels and choose alternatives
Reading labels and avoiding products with known dangerous volatile organic compounds is the
easiest way to avoid introducing VOCs inside our homes. In addition, alternative products with low-VOCs emissions already exist in the market. That’s why choosing smartly is the first and easiest
option. It reduces VOCs emissions and preserves good health and indoor air quality.
Choose carefully which building material to use for your home
Even though some buildings are already completed before buying them, if we need to furnish or
decorate our homes, we can do it conscientiously. As already stated, some paints, varnishes, and
tapes have high levels of VOCs that can be easily emitted into the air. And despite smelling good, their
inhalation is far from safe.
The better the smell, the more toxic your product
Even though not every product has a specific odor, many new products
have it. And contrary to popular belief, there’s no relation between a good product and its smell.
If a product smells good, it means that the components in it, probably volatile organic compounds,
still haven’t been released in the air, and their inhalation should be avoided. Considering the smelling
factor is not an indicator, we should always verify the components of everything we decide to buy. An informed decision is essential to avoid volatile organic compounds exposure.
Be careful with your DIY practices
DIY, or do-it-yourself activities, consist in repairing or decorating your home without paying
someone else to do it for you. Although developing some practical skills is great, make sure to use
safe products and ventilate the room while painting the walls, redecorating your furniture, or while
using glue to repair things.
The cheap option isn’t always the best option
Although this rule doesn’t apply to everything, low-price furniture products have lower quality. As
already mentioned, low-quality wooden products tend to be created with a mix of glue and
compressed wood, that is later released into the air. Value for money products guarantee a smaller
amount of emissions, and if you can’t afford new high-quality furniture, you could also buy a second-hand one in good conditions, manufactured with good quality standards.
Avoid smoking inside
If smoking represents a threat to our health, smoking inside compromises our respiratory system even
more. As a matter of fact, cigarettes generally contain benzene, ethylbenzene, and styrene, known
to be carcinogens. When lighting a cigarette in indoor spaces, we increase the level of air pollution
and most importantly VOCs in the air, maybe also unaware that we are already breathing chemicals
released by some products and cooking fumes. Avoiding smoking inside or opening windows allows
air to circulate and reduce emissions.
Keep levels of VOCs in indoor spaces under control
Even though opening windows is helpful in the reduction of VOCs emissions in the atmosphere, it’s
still not effective. In some countries isn’t even possible due to low temperatures. In these cases,
monitoring your indoor air quality becomes fundamental. Some smart devices, such as Airgloss
Prosense, can monitor levels of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and
carbon dioxide in indoor spaces, and automatically control your devices communicating with
HVAC systems and heat recovery ventilation (HRV/ERV) systems.
Store your new products in a different place
If monitoring your air mechanically isn’t the best option for you, consider storing your new products
in a place where nobody needs to be around. A garage, a storeroom, or a balcony are good storing
places for products that still haven’t released VOCs.
With all the studies on VOCs emissions and regulations on products, the further step we need to take
in reducing VOCs emissions is choosing wisely what to buy and raising awareness. Indeed,
spreading the word is necessary when our health is involved. Ventilation is never enough if we
consider how easily VOCs levels can rise in indoor spaces and poorly ventilated houses. Three words
sum up what you need to do: monitor, ventilate and raise awareness. This is the only way you can preserve your health.
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