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Volatile Organic Compounds - You Can't See Them, and They Can Hurt You

The U.S. EPA reports that some of the most polluted air you breathe is right inside your home. Among the most harmful indoor-air contaminates are the volatile organic compounds that come from many of the products that you commonly buy and use. VOCs can cause a range of health symptoms ranging from throat irritation to organ damage (if exposure is prolonged and severe).

Household Products Affecting Your Indoor Air Quality

These compounds evaporate from common man-made products, including:

  • Household cleaners.
  • Paints, flooring materials, window coverings and furniture.
  • Caulk.
  • Air fresheners and cosmetics.
  • Gasoline, fuel oil and moth balls.
  • Dry-cleaned clothing.
  • Tobacco smoke.
  • Newspapers. 
  • Wood-burning stoves.

Common VOCs include acetone, benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, perchloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene. Some of these have odors, while others have none. Manufacturers don't have to label products that contain any of these compounds, but a few have started making materials that are low in VOCs, giving consumers more choices.

How To Reduce VOCs

Even if you select products that are low in volatile organic compounds, you still run the risk of exposure. Products that reduce smog can still be labeled low-VOC, even though they emit low levels in your home.

Given today's energy prices, many Americans have taken steps to tighten their homes, and, ironically, this may cause levels of VOCs and other contaminates to rise. These are steps you can take to lower the VOCs in your air:

  • Check labels on the products that you buy, especially when you're purchasing paints and finishes. Even though some paints have low levels of VOCs, they're still the better option. If it's possible, put off home remodeling and improvement projects until the weather permits you to open the doors and windows to increase air circulation.
  • Buy just what you need to do the project you're undertaking. Look around your house for dated paints, finishes and cleaners, and safely dispose of what you don't plan to use in the near future.
  • Choose furniture that has been finished at the factory and allowed to off-gas. If you like to finish your own furniture, do so seasonally, and let it sit outside while it loses the VOCs. Some homeowners opt for used furniture, because the VOCs have been largely off-gassed.
  • If youenjoy indoor plants, choose those that will remove some volatile organic compounds from your indoor air. Spider plants, Boston ferns, English ivy and aloe vera will remove some of the VOCs, and each of these is relatively easy to grow.
  • Choose a dry cleaner who uses VOC-free chemicals for cleaning your textiles. Options include wet cleaning, which involves gently and slowly washing the items. Another method involves using liquid carbon dioxide, which removes dirt, oils and odors and leaves no residue.
  • Use natural cleaners instead of the harsher cleaning chemicals found in stores. Baking soda, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are all suitable cleansers. You can sanitize with the peroxide and even use vodka or rubbing alcohol for sterilization.

Other ways to lower the volatile organic compounds in your home's air include using your HVAC equipment for gas and particulate entrapment. They are:

  • Heat recovery ventilators: These are ingenious devices that introduce fresh air into your home without wasting the air you've paid to condition. They extract the energy from the outgoing air and put it into the incoming air. You can have fresh air even during the worst parts of winter. If you have hobbies that involve products containing VOCs, or you don't want to put off remodeling or bringing in new products when your home is closed up tightly, an HRV could be an ideal way to improve your indoor-air quality. 
  • Air filtration systems: These systems are available as portable units or work with your central HVAC system to clean the air in your home. The units with carbon filters will trap some of the VOCs. The carbon filters need intermittent replacementfor the filtration system to be most effective.
  • Exhaust fans: Run them when you're cooking and when you're working in the garage. 

Maintaining clean indoor air will promote your family's health, and taking steps to minimize the volatile organic compounds in your home is an important part of doing that.  For more information, contact We provide outstanding HVAC services to homeowners in Chicagoland, southwestern Michigan and northwestern Indiana.

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