Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are everywhere, all the time. These are solids and liquids that convert easily to gas or vapor at room temperature and seep into your body from paint strippers, air fresheners, dryer sheets, shower curtains, and even your dry cleaning.
If you’re lucky, they only make your eyes water and give you headaches. If you’re unlucky, VOCs trigger asthma attacks and/or cause a host of other respiratory diseases and cancer. Oddly, the very home elements that increase energy efficiency—tight seals on windows and doors, high R-value insulation—increase indoor air pollution from VOCs.
Not every VOC will kill you, but four VOCs—benzene, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, and perchloroethylene—are particularly hazardous to your health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate VOC levels in the home, so you’ll have to. Here’s a cheat sheet on the VOCs most likely to harm you.
What: A sweet-smelling, colorless liquid that is highly flammable.
Where: Cigarette smoke, incense, stored gasoline, auto exhaust, paint, glues.
Dangers: Cancer, most notably leukemia.
What: A strong-smelling liquid often used as a disinfectant, fixative, and preservative.
Where: Fuel-burning appliances, new furniture, pressed-wood products, particleboard, paneling.
Dangers: Cancers and allergic reactions.
Methylene Chloride (dichloromethane)
What: Clear liquid with a sweet smell once found in hairsprays. Its high volatility makes it useful as an aerosol propellant.
Where: Paint and varnish removers, degreasers, pesticides, spray paint.
Dangers: Cancer, liver problems, central nervous system dysfunction; and eye, skin, and respiratory irritation.
What: Principal fluid used in dry cleaning, commonly called “perc” (many cleaners now offer non-perc options).
Where: Dry-cleaned clothes, shoe polish, printer inks, adhesives.
Dangers: Cancer in animals, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, lack of coordination, and respiratory irritation.
Other common VOCs that can cause health symptoms include terpene (air fresheners, perfumes), acetone (nail polish remover, paint thinner), and styrene (rubber, insulation, carpets).
Consider any household chemical or object treated or made with chemicals—including vinyl and plastic—a potential source of VOCs. If you’re having unexplained health symptoms, take a close look at the products you use daily to determine if they are a source of VOCs.