What is a VOC (volatile organic compound)?


So, I talk about VOC’s an awful lot. Mostly about how horrible they are and how you should avoid them at all costs! But what are they? Why are they bad? And how can you avoid them?

Here are some common questions answered:

What Are They?

I found a fabulous definition on the Greenguard.org site:

“Volatile organic compounds are chemicals used to manufacture and maintain building materials, interior furnishing, cleaning products and personal care products. “Volatile” means that these chemicals evaporate or can easily get into the air at room temperature. “Organic” means these chemicals are carbon based. The term “chemical emissions” refers to VOCs as they evaporate into the air from products.”

“[these include, but are not limited to] Formaldehyde, Decane, Butoxyethanol, Isopentane, Limonene, Styrene, Xylenes, Perchloroethylene, Methylene, Chloride, Toluene, Vinyl chloride”

GreenGuard , 4/14/2014

The easiest way to describe it to you, the homeowner and end user, is that “they” are what causes the smell when you paint, open a new electronic device out of the box, or use a strong adhesive. But don’t be fooled, even though the “smell” fades after a few days or weeks, the VOC’s do their thing (we call it off-gassing) for YEARS and I’m talking about 10-15 years or more in some cases! As long as a product or finish is off-gassing in your home, you and your children and pets are susceptible to the effects! This leads us to your next question:

Why are they Bad?

VOC’s are bad for you because they cause all kinds of health problems. The EPA lists a few on its site:

“Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some 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.”

EPA , 4/14/2014

Not only are there short and long term damages being done to your health, but the chemicals that it takes to produce VOC’s are harmful to the environment, and the people that manufacture them are usually exposed to extremely toxic working conditions.

I know what you are thinking if you are new to this information, “O.M.G. what do I do, how do I get rid of them, and what can I do now?”

How can you avoid them?

Well, other than to move out in to the wild and bunk up in a log cabin with no appliances, you really can’t avoid them. They are in the products that your car, computer, phone, carpeting, refrigerator, television, toothbrush, cleaning products and even some of your clothes are made of.

Don’t panic! There are many different things that you can start doing now to get them out of your life in the future!

-Purchase more products that are certified to be safe by organizations such as Greenguard and Cradle2Cradle.

-When you make a home improvement, use natural materials, with safe finishes, and make sure you are checking in to NO VOC paints! (There are several options these days on the paint at nearly every retailer in town, so there really is no excuse).

-As far as your car and electronics, etc., the only reasonable thing to do is to try not to buy too many new products. Demand goes up and so does production. So use your senses here and don’t go get a new computer every year if the one you have is just fine…I know a new one is SO much fun, but you don’t need it!

-Green cleaning products are getting to be easy to find these days as well. If you are shopping at a local big box store you should be able to find the following cleaning products that I use every day and think are AWESOME:

1)Method – everything they have is both C2C and Greenguard certified, their products also contain no harmful phosphates that damage the local environment! The thing I like about Method is they have wonderful smelling products and everything comes in super fun packaging!

Method Home

2)Seventh Generation – Every thing they produce is plant based and they are extremely affordable as well. They also hold multiple certifications for all of the great things that they have put in to their products. Ellen has featured this company on her show recently and they have a awesome mission and website!

What else can you do?

Talk to people about all the wonderful information you just learned and share it! Hire people who are also committed to sustainability and take a second look when you encounter a product or material that claims to be natural or VOC free!

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