How to Reduce Indoor VOCs in Your Home

5 Ways to Decrease the Concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds in Your Home...

Industrial-modern wooden kitchen area

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, exist both outside and inside the home and are damaging to human lungs, throats, and skin no matter where they come from. VOCs are chemicals that have a high vapor pressure, meaning that they can easily transform into a gaseous state at room temperature, allowing them to be breathed in by humans and animals alike. While we might think that dangerous volatile organic compounds exist only in industrial manufacturing plants, agricultural operations, and other unstable environments, they are quite common in most households.

Cheap furniture, gas stoves, radiators, and outside pollutants that can travel into the home are all capable of emitting toxic VOCs. They can also be present in personal care products and building materials you might consider safe. The Minnesota Department of Health warns that acute exposure to high concentrations of VOCs can result in “eye, nose & throat irritation, headaches, nausea/vomiting, dizziness, and the worsening of asthma symptoms,” while chronic exposure can result in “cancer, liver & kidney damage, and central nervous system damage.” Thankfully, there are a number of ways by which you can limit the active VOCs in your home. Follow the five steps below to reduce the harmful indoor VOCs you may be interacting with.

1. Open a Window When Outdoor Air Quality is Good

Large glass doors open to let fresh air in

Air conditioning and heating units can be deceptive in the way they move air around a room; one might imagine that they are actually inputting new, clean air into a space, when they are unfortunately just recycling old air. This old air is often full of pollutants, including VOCs, that have existed in the home for days, weeks, and even months, depending on the last time the vents or ducts were cleaned. Byrd Heating & Air Conditioning, alongside other experts, recommends keeping a window open whenever weather reports include healthy outdoor air quality.

In their article “How to Reduce Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) in Your Indoor Air,” the company notes that “you can get rid of VOCs and let some fresh air into your home by opening a window, using the exhaust fan in your kitchen or bathroom, or having a mechanical ventilator installed...ventilators remove stale indoor air and pull the same amount of fresh air into your home, which can save energy by transferring heat from the stale air to the fresh air in winter and cooling the fresh air in summer.” Opening two windows or a window and a door -- with each across from the other -- is the best way to remove VOCs naturally because cross-ventilation is created, effectively sucking lower-quality air out of the room and replacing it with fresh air.

2. Regularly Upgrade Old Equipment and Appliances

Wood burning stove in living room

While the EPA lists VOCs separately from combustion pollutants in its brief on “Indoor Air Quality,” burning wood releases some volatile organic compounds similar to those emitted when burning fossil fuels. The EPA notes that fuel and wood-burning appliances are the “major source of combustion pollutants” in homes where appliances are not properly vented. Combustion pollutants can be emitted by “space heaters, wood stoves, gas stoves, water heaters, dryers, fireplaces,” and radiators. These pollutants most commonly include carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, but can also include additional nitrogen oxides and VOCs. The paint and coatings on older appliances can also emit VOCs, and are more likely to do so when exposed to heat. As such, try to upgrade older appliances as often as necessary and call on professionals wherever needed.

Avoid overheating areas in your home that you fear may contain VOCs -- for example, avoid using cheap, oddly-smelling kitchen tools when you cook. Greg Geilman, a real estate agent, President and CEO of South Bay Residential in Manhattan Beach, California, and contributing writer to the PCI blog explains in his article “Common Sources of VOCs in the Home: How to Limit Your Exposure,” that when materials containing VOCs “are exposed to high levels of heat, the VOCs they contain will evaporate into the air in your home, in a process known as off-gassing...so to help prevent accelerated off-gassing in your home on hot summer days, you'll want to keep a close eye on your home's indoor temperature.”

3. Assess and Replace Materials in Your Home as Needed

Living room area with handmade rugs and unique local furniture

Avoid mass-produced furniture that might have been constructed from materials that commonly off-gas. Buy furniture from artisans or companies that disclose the composition of their materials to the public instead of purchasing from big-box retailers that frequently sell fast furniture. Fast furniture, often made from plastic-wood hybrid materials, outfitted with plastic fittings, and sealed with chemically unsafe paint and other coatings, is practically made to break down and can emit harmful chemicals like formaldehyde. Purchase quality, handmade goods whenever possible, and replace any materials in your home you might be suspicious of. If you can afford it, consider buying antiques made from good quality, organic materials.

Avoid purchasing synthetic rugs and carpeting as well, recommends The Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization “that focuses on improving the health and the environmental impacts of urban residents.” The Center explains in their article “Ask the EcoTeam: My New Carpet is Off-Gassing!” that synthetic carpets made from nylon, with plastic backings, can “emit VOCs for five years or possibly more, as carpet has been reported to release toxins like PFAS over time with ‘routine wear and tear.’” Be wary whenever you open a new carpet, rug, or upholstered item from a shipping box, the Center warns, as that “‘new carpet’ odor” you smell “is the 4-PC off-gassing, which can cause eye and respiratory tract infection and may also affect the central nervous system.”

4. Perform Regular Maintenance

Avoid a buildup of harmful VOCs by cleaning out areas of the home that either bring in, recycle, or exhale air from the home. These may include vents, radiators, window sills, fans, and air purifier filters. According to the “Dust Doctors” blog, VOCs cannot leave the home once they are emitted unless new air is introduced into the space, a need completely unfulfilled by heating or air conditioning units. The post “What Are VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)?” explains that “once VOCs enter the air, they are circulated through the HVAC system via the air ducts [and that] many of these chemicals linger and never really settle or disappear,” affecting your health as they repeatedly reinfect each room through heating or air conditioning vents.

5. Release Exhaust and Other Fumes Outdoors

Modern kitchen with large doors open letting air in

Whether you are cooking, polishing the floor, cleaning counters, painting your nails, or starting a fire in your fireplace, make sure all exhaust and chemicals have an easy way to leave the house. Always open windows or doors and turn on a fan when you apply chemicals used for cleaning. OSHA’s brief “Protect Yourself - Cleaning Chemicals and your Health” recommends getting to know your cleaning agents before you use them, including “know[ing] how to use and store cleaning chemicals safely and know[ing] now how and when to dilute cleaning chemicals you are using.”

Avoid using appliances intended for outdoor use inside, as some outdoor appliances like barbecues and camping stoves can emit butanol. The New Jersey Department of Health explains in their “Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet” that butanol “can cause irritation of the skin and eyes...drying and cracked skin...irritated nose, throat, and lungs...nausea, vomiting and diarrhea…[and] headache, dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, and passing out,” which can be especially dangerous if you are alone. Vent all stoves and maintain distance from any combustion appliances to best protect yourself and your loved ones.

By replacing old appliances, refraining from purchasing cheap, off-gassing furniture, keeping windows open whenever possible, and cleaning and maintaining your home safely and often, you can protect yourself, your family, and your pets from the effects of harmful indoor VOCs.