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VOCs in the Home

Updated on February 21, 2011

The Age of Oil

For many years we have been in love with oil. It powers our cars, it gives us electricity, it warms our houses, it lets us take foreign holidays, and it provides us with plastics and forms the basis of thousands of solvents used in a vast array of home, garden and office products. Oil (until recently) has mostly been cheap and plentiful. Oil has also been the basis of fertilizers and pesticides and has allowed food production to keep up with expanding populations. Oil has allowed us to build rockets to go to the moon. Maybe 200 years from now people will refer to this period in history as ‘The Age of Oil’. It is my belief that they will sadly shake their heads when they make such a reference.

Why Volatile Organic Compounds?

For decades manufacturers and governments have been complicit in downplaying the dangers of this oil reliance. Governments mask foreign policy initiatives to secure oil supplies as extending a helping hand to fledgling democracies. Corporations likewise conveniently ignore the pollution oil products cause. A good case in point is the lead that was used in car petrol or gasoline for years to stop engine knocking. They knew damn well it was wreaking havoc with human and environmental health and choose to ignore the problem because solving the problem would detrimentally affect their bottom lines.

Water is contaminated by petrol and petroleum products, soil is polluted, human health is risked and wild life suffers. In dramatic cases such as oil spills and oil fires the amount of environmental damage done is virtually immeasurable.

One of the lesser known evil off-sprouts of the petroleum empire that has the planet at its mercy is VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds. These are long chain molecules such as formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, methylene chloride, carbon tetrachloride, xylene and acetone that are made from petroleum derivatives and that have low boiling points. As a result they evaporate or off-gas easily and pollute the air.

The reason these and other VOCs are so ubiquitous in household products is that they make good solvents and are cheap to produce.

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List of Products Containing VOCs

Take a look at this list of common household items that contain VOCs:

gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, paint thinner, oil-based stains, paint, insect/pest killers, mineral spirits, furniture polish, nail polish, nail polish remover, colognes, perfumes, rubbing alcohol, hair spray, dry cleaned clothes, spot removers, leather cleaners, paint stripper and glue removers, degreasers, brake cleaner, carburetor cleaner, electronics cleaners, spray lubricants, moth balls, deodorizers, air fresheners, aerosol sprays for paints, cosmetics, leather treatments, pesticides, upholstered furniture, plywood, pressed wood products, carpets, copier ink and marker pens.

It cannot be stressed enough – this not an exhaustive list. It merely highlights the prevalence of VOCs in our home and working life. Did you imagine that your perfume or dry cleaned clothes were making you sick? Many, but not all, VOCs have strong often sweet smells. If you smell a strong odor from a product then read the label and check online for the possible health implications for those chemicals.

List of VOCs to Watch Out For

Chemicals to look out for are:

benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, hexane, cyclohexane, 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, acetone, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, methacrylates, ethyl acetate, tetrachloroethene, perchloroethene (PERC), trichloroethene (TCE), methylene chloride, toluene, carbon tetrachloride, d-limonene, isoprene, xylenes, methyl ethyl ketone, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, naphthalene, heptane, butane and pentane.

Again this list is not exhaustive. The health risks vary from chemical to chemical. One thing is certain none of them are good for us and they find it easy to get up our noses and into our blood stream.

Conclusion

Just as there was a big stink about ‘E Numbers’ in food in the Eighties I expect there to be a big stink about VOCs in the next decade. Consumer groups, medical authorities and eventually goaded governments are going to come clean about the dangers of VOCs.

Until that time it is up to the individual to protect him or herself and children from the health risks of VOCs.

Alternatives to VOCs often use water based solvents and state of the art bio-mimicry components to do away with VOCs. The technology is there to make our homes, offices and public places free of VOCs. What is needed is the political impetus to bring about change - a change for healthier air and safe products.

Afternotes

As an after note, I might be totally wrong but I suspect that the frightening increase in the amount of people with allergies in the developed world could be partly caused by exposure to VOCs. In Africa and other developing areas where people have few consumer products containing VOCs there are few people suffering from allergies.

And one final after thought: we need to educate our children in the principles of green interior design so maybe they won't stand for the poor quality and health damaging products that older generations seemed to have accepted.

Credit and Resources

The lists of VOCs and products that contain such VOCs has been adapted from the New York State Department of Health website.

For an analysis of the VOCs and the health risks of 1000s of household products in America go to the National Institute of Health online database.

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