No matter how clean you keep your home, there are always compounds and particles that find their way inside, whether in the form of moisture, solids or gases.
It’s fairly easy to prevent hazardous solid or liquid materials from entering our home, but we should be aware of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – gases that are emitted by many indoor sources, which we might not even be aware contained them.
Sources of VOCs include everyday items like fabrics, cleaning agents, wall insulation and perfume.
Concentration levels of most VOCs are higher indoors than outdoors as air circulation is confined within one space indoors.
VOCs can be released from products during use, and even while in storage.
However, the amount of VOCs emitted from products tends to decrease as the product ages.
VOCs are a cause for concern because they create health issues.
They include a variety of chemicals that can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, skin problems, and hormonal imbalances.
Long-term exposure to high concentrations of VOCs can cause lung issues and damage to the liver, kidney or central nervous system.
Some VOCs are even suspected to play a role in cancer, while others have been proven to cause cancer in humans.
Although most of us are unaffected by short-term exposure to lower levels of VOCs found in homes, it can be an irritant for people with issues like asthma or respiratory problems.
Research is currently ongoing to better understand any health effects from long-term exposure to low levels of VOCs,
Here is a list of eight common VOCs that are found indoors:
Candles, barbecues and gas stoves increase the presence of butanal, one of the most common VOCs.
To prevent butanal from damaging your indoor air quality, keep these items outside and ventilate the house when cooking.
If you like a nice fragrance in your house, use natural candles made from beeswax or soy-based candle wicks instead.
Vinegar is the most common source of this chemical compound.
High doses of this organic gas can result in throat and breathing issues, so be sure to check vinegar products to ensure safe exposure levels.
Luckily, most vinegars contain less than 4% of this compound, making them safe for consumption and in general.
Isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol is a common solvent for home and professional use as a disinfecting agent.
It evaporates quickly, making it easy for large amounts to build up in the home.
Maintain air quality by opening your doors or windows to ensure proper ventilation, and consider using breathing protection when using alcohol in enclosed areas.
Acetone is found in common products such as nail polish remover, furniture polish and wallpaper, and it can be a rather potent chemical.
It is one of the most common VOCs out there and is harmful to human health in high doses.
Opt for alcohol-based nail polish removers and water-based furniture polishes, which are safer alternatives.
This is one of the most common VOCs out there because it is present in everyday products such as moulded plastics and lacquers.
To lower the concentration of formaldehyde around you, avoid heating plastics, such as microwaving food in plastics and limit plastic use in general.
Check to make sure that finishing products do not contain formaldehyde.
When they do, make sure to use these products in well-ventilated areas.
Carbon disulphide is found in chlorinated tap water, which is a standard utility in cities and suburban neighbourhoods.
To avoid exposure and decrease the concentration in the body, use a charcoal or carbon-filtration system, or subscribe to a water purifying system.
Also known as dichloromethane, this VOC is present in paint removers, aerosol solvents and other flame retardant chemicals.
Although it is quite a dangerous compound, it is difficult for it to exist in large concentrations, mainly because of the rapid rate of evaporation.
But inside a home, proper ventilation is a must when dealing with products containing methylene chloride because it is easier for it to collect indoors.
How do you avoid exposure to VOCs?
Control the source by using materials and products that do not give off VOCs.
Here are some tips:
- Before using, store furnishings and building materials in a place with lots of ventilation for a few weeks to allow the gases to dissipate.
You can increase ventilation by opening windows and doors in your home.
For items like paints and varnishes, choose ones containing low VOCs.
- To avoid storing unnecessary sources of VOCs, buy only enough paints, cleaners and solvents for immediate use.
If you have leftovers, keep the lids on tightly.
Store products in a separate room like an outdoor shed or in a space with proper ventilation.
- Dry-cleaned clothes have VOCs when they come back fresh from the cleaners.
Remove your clothes from the plastic wrapping and hang them in a ventilated area for a few days before storing them in your closet.
- Second-hand smoke contains many pollutants, including VOCs.
Do not allow smoking in or near your home if you can.
- Minimise the use of scented products such as plug-in or aerosol deodorisers, candles and incense.
- For new carpets, ventilate the space as much as possible during the installation using fans, and opening windows and doors.
Continue to ventilate for several days after installation.
- When using household chemicals, follow the instructions on manufacturers’ labels.
If the label says “use in a well-ventilated area”, go outside or to an area where an exhaust fan or open window provides extra ventilation.
VOCs are prevalent in common substances such as household cleaners, varnishes, paint, cigarette smoke and others.
It is impossible to eliminate them entirely from your home, but knowing the most common VOCs and their sources goes a long way in helping you to make better decisions when choosing products for your home.
Awareness, combined with prevention and frequent assessments, is the best way to maintain air quality and stay safe from VOCs.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and a functional medicine practitioner. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
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