You may not have heard of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), but it’s likely that your lungs are infinitely familiar with them. VOCs are a large group of petroleum-based chemicals found in many products that Americans use every day. The list is extensive and includes cosmetics, cleaning solutions, upholstery, paints, perfumes, carpets and composite wood furniture. Basically VOCs are in products that ‘coat’ things, such as detergents, fabric protectors, lotions and varnishes.
The chemicals react in the atmosphere to create smog — just like the emissions from your car. Since cars now run cleaner, VOCs today could pollute just as much as vehicles, according to one University of Colorado study. But health officials say the real threat might be inside our homes and workspaces. Some studies suggest indoor air is 7 times more polluted than the stuff we breathe outside — you know, the air laden with all those car and smokestack emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate indoor air pollution, so there has been seemingly little pressure to reduce VOCs in household products and surprisingly few studies about their effects on our health. It’s known that the thousands of VOC chemicals stick to the dust and air molecules we breathe, and they’ve been linked to allergies, asthma, neurological and liver problems — as well as cancer. But we are lacking the data needed to truly understand the threat.
Perhaps the most studied VOC is formaldehyde, widely used in the manufacturing of building materials, but also found in glue, paper, disinfectants and other household goods. The National Cancer Institute says despite its widespread use, formaldehyde does not pose a significant risk to homeowners.
Still, health professionals recommend that consumers be mindful of chemical exposure and try to limit it when possible. What can you do? A good start may be using natural cleansers you can make yourself from vinegar, baking soda and other natural products. There are many tutorials. Or perhaps opt for chemical-free cosmetics and lotions that are flooding the marketplace. Experts also suggest you limit your use of plastics, foam containers and chemically-treated fabrics. It’s even possible to buy organic paints and carpets.
Being aware of the problem is the first step. Watch how VOCs compare to vehicle emissions, with the comforting thought that if we managed to clean up our cars, perhaps we can clean up our homes as well.