VOCs can be found in lots of materials and products within our homes, such as paints, upholstery, furniture, carpets, pressed wood products, adhesives, paint solvents, dyes, laminates, vinyl, foam, plastics, cleaning products, aerosols, personal care products and lots more. That’s a pretty scary list isn’t it?
So, what is a VOC?
A VOC is an airborne release of a chemical, which means it’s a chemical in vapour form. When the chemical becomes a vapour, this is called off-gassing. This off-gassing of chemicals will happen the most when a material or product is new, or when a cleaning or personal care product is used.
How long will a material or product containing a VOC off-gas for?
This is hard to say as some chemicals take longer than others but it can typically take 2-6 months or maybe longer. Also, a material or product will off-gas a lot quicker if the temperature of the room is higher.
How can you tell if a material or product contains harmful VOCs and how can you avoid them?
There are a few different ways to do this.
Firstly – A general rule of thumb is if you can smell a product, then it may contain VOCs which are off-gassing. If it smells bad, then it probably is bad for you. So that new car smell that people always talk about – that’s off-gassing. Or that smell of a freshly renovated house – that’s off-gassing galore! Be prepared for that smell and those VOCs to be in the air in your home for about 2-6 months. That’s a long time to be continually breathing in toxins. Many materials or products will continue to off-gas long after the smell has gone away and some will produce VOCs that you can’t smell.
The second way, and most reliable way to tell if a material contains harmful VOCs, is to get to know which nasty chemicals you need to avoid then read the product information provided to you by the supplier to see if the product or material contains those chemicals.
Or you could search through databases for products which have obtained certification to prove that they’re not harmful to your health or the environment.
How can you avoid bringing VOCs into your home? Here are my 10 top tips!
1. Buy second hand, recycled materials, upcycled, vintage or antique. Aside from avoiding Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and keeping the air inside your home healthy – you’ll also stopping something from being thrown into landfill. Which is just as important, so it’s a double win!
2. Look for materials and products certified by GECA, GreenGuard Gold or Declare Red List Free
3. Look for products marked with low formaldehyde levels, ideally with E0 (lowest emission category) or E1 (2nd lowest emission category)
4. Buy responsibly sourced timber instead of timber composites (which are made using adhesives and can be high in VOCs)
5. Ask manufacturers and suppliers for information about the chemicals used. They should be able to provide you with a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS or SDS) or a Health Product Declaration (HPD)
6. Opt for coatings, paints, stains, sealants etc to be factory finished and not finished in your home
7. When renovating or doing any maintenance, make sure your home is well ventilated and keep it well ventilated until the smells are gone or almost gone
8. When buying new furniture or furnishings, look for eco label certified products which are low in VOC. Once the new items has been installed in your home, keep your home well ventilated until any smells are gone or almost gone
9. Avoid stain repellent, flame retardants, anti-microbial coatings and anti-wrinkle coatings. It can be said that the potential negative health effects they cause outweigh any perceived benefit they may offer
10. Look for water-based sealants as these will emit lower VOCs than an oil-based product
Nadine is the founder and editor of Eco Edition and founder of the Eco Edition Design School. She’s an experienced interior designer, sustainable materials consultant, speaker and serial home renovator.