Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are in vapors that come from many everyday household products, such as cleaners, paints, and air fresheners. Chronic exposure to VOCs has been linked to a broad spectrum of health problems, from headaches to asthma and cancer.
The effect of VOCs on your health depends on a number of variables, including how many hours you spend at home, your storage habits, and ventilation patterns in your living space. But VOCs are so widespread, you can’t get rid of them entirely. To reduce your VOC exposure, buy low-VOC products and increase ventilation when you use them.
On the following pages (click next or the page numbers below), you’ll find 6 practical and easily habit-forming tips for reducing your VOC exposure.
Tip 1: Buy only what you need
When it comes to household chemicals, break the habit of buying in bulk to save money and simply buy what you need. Stored chemicals are a major source of VOCs, even when the container is closed up tight. Whenever possible, buy low-VOC versions of products. Many “green” brands are only slightly more expensive than conventional versions.
Tip 2: Store smelly stuff in a detached shed
Paints, paint thinners, pesticides, and gas cans are a major source of VOCs. The further away from your house you store these smelly items, the better. A detached shed is ideal. Use it to store gas-powered tools, too—lawn mowers, snow blowers, and chain saws.
If you have leftover pesticides, paint, and other chemicals, contact your municipal waste department to find out where you can dispose of them safely.
Tip 3: Seal off your attached garage
If you have an attached garage, you’ve got vehicles with VOC-producing gas tanks right next to your living area. Plus, if a detached shed isn’t an option, you’re likely to use your garage to store your chemicals, gas cans, and other VOC-spewing products.
If that’s the case, seal up any connections between your garage and living area. Weatherstrip your garage access door, and make sure that the threshold gasket is snugged up tight.
Sometimes connections aren’t obvious—loose holes around ductwork can leak garage air into your basement where an air return duct collects and disperses VOCs all over the house. Button up these gaps with caulk and foam sealant.
Tip 4: Your nose knows
Weather permitting, open windows and run exhaust fans when you’re working with paints and pungent cleaners. Trust your nose—if you can smell it, you’re whiffing VOCs. That includes any time you bring vinyl or plastic items (say, a new shower curtain) or dry-cleaned clothes into the house.
If weather permits, remove covers and packaging from items and set them outside for a while to off-gas—at least until they don’t smell. Schedule major interior paint jobs for good weather so you can open up windows.
Tip 5: Exhaust your possibilities
Bathroom and kitchen fans are great for removing VOCs from the air, especially because cooking and cleaning can release some potent, even carcinogenic, compounds. But if you run exhaust fans constantly, you create negative air pressure inside the house that may draw air—and VOCs—from your attached garage into your home.
Run fans until any chemical or smoke smell dissipates, then turn them off. If you use your garage as a regular work area for VOC-generating hobbies, such as woodworking, install an exhaust fan to the outside. Exhaust fans cost $250 to $400, installed.
Tip 6: Ditch the air fresheners
The health evidence against plug-in and spray air fresheners is mounting; many emit chemicals and ultra-fine particulates that aren’t identified on the label. Some also contain terpene, a fragrant chemical that’s widely found in natural substances, such as pine resins.
But when confined inside a house, terpenes react with naturally occurring ozone in the air and form compounds that have long-term effects on the respiratory system (asthma, for example).
The alternative? Keep a clean house, use environmentally friendly cleaners, and get a whiff of pine scent while taking a nice long walk outside.