Make Your Home Greener by Lowering VOC Levels

Brett Freeman

Have you ever gotten a headache while painting? Most likely, the problem wasn't just in your head, it was in your paint in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). For generations, VOCs have been added to paints, cleaners, pesticides and countless other common household supplies. The harmful potential of most VOCs is just beginning to be studied and understood, but VOCs have been tied to respiratory problems, organ damage, and cancer.

VOCs, which include well-known toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride are also found in plenty of other household products, including paint-thinning and paint-stripping chemicals, wood preservatives, pesticides, printer ink, and cleansers and disinfectants. The result is that the air inside of a typical house has two to five times the level VOCs as the air outside. That's on an average day. If you're painting or doing another home project that involves substances high in VOCs, the levels can be 1,000 times higher than the air outside.

Sickening Stuff
VOCs can cause problems in a variety of ways. With high-VOC materials like paint strippers, they can cause respiratory problems, eye irritation, dizziness, nausea, and memory problems. Long term exposure to high levels of some VOCs can lead to chronic eye and respiratory problems, liver or kidney damage, and even cancer. VOC levels can remain elevated for days or even weeks after a project is completed--consider how long the chemical smell remains behind in a room that has been freshly painted. Even drinking water is affected. VOCs are often present in ground water, the result of improper disposal or storage of oil, gasoline, and other chemicals. EPA regulations require that municipal water supplies be tested for VOCs but this protection doesn't extend to private water supplies.

Protect Yourself and Your Family
One of the best ways to guard against high VOC levels in your home is to use low-VOC and no-VOC paints and paint thinners and strippers when doing indoor painting projects. These vinyl-based paints are similar in every way to their VOC-laden predecessors except one--they are practically odorless, which means you can avoid that lingering chemical smell in your newly repainted rooms. Other products such as sealants, adhesives, and insulation are likewise available in low-VOC versions.

Some types of VOCs can't be avoided. Gasoline, for example, is a VOC. But you can reduce its negative impact on your home environment by only buying what you need. Buy just enough to fill your lawn mower, weed trimmer, or other gas-powered tools so you can avoid having to store gasoline in a gas can, which emits gas vapor. If you are storing high-VOC paints for touch-ups to rooms painted long ago, tighten the lids and store the cans upside down. This prevents VOC emissions, and also better preserves the paint inside.

Most VOC-reducing techniques are about awareness and common sense. A good rule of thumb is--if there's a part of your home such as the basement, garage, or under the sink, that has a strong chemical smell, then chances are you could be doing a better job of reducing or eliminating VOCs from your home.

About the Author

Brett Freeman is a freelance journalist. He also owns a landscaping and irrigation company in North Carolina. Previously he has worked as a beat reporter, a teacher, and for a home improvement company, and he used to own a bar/live music venue.


 

About the Author
Brett Freeman is a freelance journalist. He also owns a landscaping and irrigation company in North Carolina. Previously he has worked as a beat reporter, a teacher, and for a home improvement company, and he used to own a bar/live music venue.


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