Understanding Air Quality: What are VOCs?
Last updated: March 2021
I feel like “volatile organic compound” could be a good band name. That’s about all I know about them—I’m aware they’re more commonly known as VOCs (not as cool for a band name), are in our air, and can cause problems if you have asthma.
Less than 24 hours ago, I received a wearable air quality monitoring device*, which is telling me my VOC exposure in the 19 hours and 55 minutes the device has been running is generally low, and that’s a good thing.
But what ARE these volatile organic compounds if not, you know, punk rockers or a metal band name?
Volatile organic compounds defined
VOCs are comprised of "carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature”, creating ozone and fine particulates.1 They are invisible, and may not be noticeable to us as we go about our lives. Even though I didn’t know how to explain VOCs when I started writing this, I might have correctly been able to identify the sources of VOCs we can encounter in everyday life - and if you think about it, they all often have “a smell” of some sort in common: paint, adhesives, fragrances, fuels like butane, solvents (such as products like acetone), and formaldehyde are all VOCs.1
Cigarette smoke, flooring materials, air fresheners and cleaning products all also emit VOCs.2 As you may have guessed, VOCs are “released through product and material use”—which is why when I once got a pillow-top mattress cover it was literally a month before I could use it due to off-gassing!2—as well as being released during manufacturing of those products.1
VOCs and asthma
While VOCs are everywhere, low-levels of those found in homes are likely to not cause most of us problems, especially if we are only exposed for short periods of time.2 According to the Government of Canada, research is ongoing to determine actual risk of long-term low-level VOC exposure.2
People with asthma may be more susceptible to health issues caused by VOCs, such as breathing problems.2 Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat are also common symptoms of short-term exposure to high levels of VOCs—headaches are another common post-exposure symptom.2 Industrial workers with higher exposure over the long-term to VOCs including benzene and formaldehyde have been found to be at increased risk of cancer.
What can be done about VOCs?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, you can reduce your overall exposure to VOCs at home by:3
- Having a smoke-free household
- Opening doors or windows (increasing ventilation) when using products known to emit VOCs
- Not storing opened/unsealed containers of products that contain VOCs, such as paints inside your home or workplace if they are not needed
- Do not buy chemical products in larger quantities than needed
- Dispose of these products properly, such as by taking to a hazardous waste management depot
- Measure formaldehyde levels in your home or workplace and remove the source where possible. According to the EPA, using a sealant on exposed surfaces can decrease exposure (though I ask, does the sealant also contain VOCs?! Meta, much?)
- Read and follow the directions on household products such as cleaners. (If they say to ventilate well or wear a mask, do so!) Do not mix products unless they should be mixed according to the manufacturer
- Use non-chemical “pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides”3
Are VOCs causing you problems with asthma?
For most of us, our homes are not significant enough sources of VOCs to cause health problems, as long as they are well-ventilated, smoke-free, and we choose the products we are using wisely. As I now know my VOC exposure is low based on the objective data from the air quality monitoring device I am using, it will be interesting to see if increases in my VOC exposure at home increases my asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity symptoms—but hopefully, I don’t have to find out for awhile!
*Disclosure: This post contains information stemming from my experiences with the Atmotube PRO personal air quality monitor. While this article is not a review of the product, out of an abundance of caution I choose to note that Atmotube sent me a device to use, for free, at my request to write about separate to Asthma.net, with no other strings attached.
Has laughter ever triggered your asthma?