Health dangers of VOCs from household paints, paneling, carpeting... and even clothes from the dry cleaner.
I love the clean, inviting smell of a freshly painted room.
Unfortunately, that new paint smell may actually be a concoction of thousands of toxic compounds (known as VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds) that will be hanging around long after the paint has dried. In fact, while off-gassing peaks within the first few hours and weeks, some products release only half of their VOCs within the first year and continue emitting VOCs throughout their life.
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Paints are a leading cause for concern, but other contributors of potentially harmful, man-made VOCs (as opposed to natural VOCs produced by trees and vegetation) include:
- spray paint, varnishes, paint thinners and paint strippers
- preservative in cleaners and disinfectants
- cosmetics, colognes and hair spray
- nail polish and nail polish remover
- moth repellents
- office supplies like correction fluid and carbonless copy paper
- office equipment like photocopiers and laser printers
- glues and adhesives
- permanent markers
- finish on paper products
- fiberglass and foam insulation
- wood preservatives
- glues, finishes and waxes used in paneling, plywood and other pressed wood products
- fire retardants
- air freshener
- automotive products
- photo solutions
- carpeting and vinyl flooring along with the adhesives used during their installation
- furniture upholstery
- tobacco smoke
- improperly vented kerosene or gas space heaters, fireplaces or gas stoves
- coating that gives fabrics their permanent press quality
- ... and even storing or wearing clothes brought home from the dry-cleaner
To make matters worse, some of these products release toxic organic compounds into our household air even when simply stored in their sealed containers!
Combined, common, household products consistently raise indoor air pollution levels 2 to 10 times of what we're exposed to in even highly industrialized outdoor locations. And because many of us are indoors for the majority of our day, poor indoor air quality has been linked with a wide range of both health problems. Some ill effects of exposure to VOCs, such as irritation of the eyes, skin, nose or throat, headaches, nausea, fatigue or dizziness may subside quickly but others can be chronic and much more severe, including kidney and liver damage, impaired brain function and an increased risk of cancer.
Why are VOCs added to paints and other household products?
In the case of paints, most of the VOCs come from the thinners, which improve a paint's durability, make it easier to apply, speed up the drying process and extend the product's shelf-life. This is why oil-based paints tend to be higher in VOCs than latex (water-based) paints. The pigments (color) and binders, however, may also contain VOCs and other toxic chemicals.
How to reduce the potentially harmful effects of VOC and other indoor air pollutants
The potential health effects of VOC exposure depend on 1) the specific chemicals we are exposed to, 2) how much we breathe in, and 3) how long and how often we are exposed. Age, gender and overall health can also make a difference. In general, however, your risk can be minimized by following these steps:
- Don't permit smoking indoors
- Have plenty of fresh air ventilation (open windows and use window fans to pull air from indoors to outdoors) when painting or using powerful cleaning products. This may mean scheduling your painting projects for dry, warm periods (higher temperatures also speed up the off-gassing process).
- If you are the one doing the painting, wear a dust mask when scraping or sanding old paint and wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth as soon as possible. Take frequent fresh-air breaks and leave the area while painting if you notice signs of overexposure, which include watering eyes, headache, dizziness, or breathing discomfort. Read and follow the manufacturer's instructions in terms of paint application, cleanup, storage and disposal. Keep paint containers covered as much as possible.
- If you are painting movable objects, paint them outdoors.
- Allow 2-3 days for newly painted rooms to "off-gas" with the windows opened before the rooms are reoccupied. Likewise, allow newly installed carpet, paneling, etc. adequate time to "air out."
- Store paints, solvents, adhesives, fuel and pesticides in well ventilated or seldom-used areas such as the garage or a shed. Better yet, buy smaller amounts (only as much as you need) or share with a friend and properly discard what's left over at a hazardous materials collection site.
- Unpack new furniture and allow it to air-out in a well-ventilated space before moving it into the home.
- Use non-chemical methods of pest management to reduce your use of pesticides.
- Rather than using household cleaners, use baking soda, borax or vinegar.
- Allow dry-cleaned clothes to air-out outdoors before wearing or storing.
- Don't allow automobiles to idle inside the garage.
- Keep children and pets away from potentially toxic products.
A note about low-VOC, no-VOC or zero-VOC products: Some products marketed as environmentally-friendly, green-products or low- or no-VOCs may be misleading and actually contain VOCs or toxic chemical compounds. According to the EPA, no standards have been established for the testing and rating of products containing VOCs so measurements can vary widely. This is especially true of wet products, such as paints or adhesives that may be labeled as 'low-VOC' or 'zero VOC.' In addition, the reference to VOCs on label applies only to what's in the original can so be sure to ask about the effect of any additional pigments, mold inhibitors, bactericides or other additives (all of which may contain VOCs). These limitations, however, do not mean that safety concerns are beyond your control when purchasing paint, adhesives, wood products, or flooring. As much as possible, ask questions and specify formaldehyde-free, low- or no-VOC, low-toxic, solvent-free water-based paints, primers, wood stains and finishes, adhesives and sealants.
Sources (Accessed August 9, 2012):