6 Tips for Reducing Your VOC Exposure

6 Tips for Reducing Your VOC Exposure Simple, habit-forming strategies reduce your exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in your home. There is such a thing as too much ventilation.


Leaving windows open too often can introduce pollutants indoors. Image: Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images Chronic exposure to the essential ingredients in hundreds of household products that you use every day, like air fresheners and paint strippers, has been linked to a broad spectrum of health problems from headaches to asthma and cancer.

The effects of these volatile organic compounds, or VOCs-solids and liquids that convert easily to gas or vapor at room temperature-depend on a number of variable factors, including how many hours you spend at home, your storage habits, and ventilation patterns in your living space.

But VOCs are so widespread, you can't eliminate your exposure entirely. To keep your home as free of unwanted VOCs as possible, eliminate sources when you can and increase ventilation when using products containing VOCs. These practical and easily habit-forming steps should have minimal impact on your time and wallet. Take charge of VOCs

1. Buy only what you need. When it comes to household chemicals, break the habit of buying in bulk to save money. Stored chemicals are a major source of VOCs, even when the container appears to be tightly sealed. If you have leftover pesticides or paint, contact your municipal waste department to find out where you can dispose of them safely. When possible, buy low-VOC versions of products. Some "green" brands are only slightly more expensive than conventional versions. Keep in mind though that low-VOC replacements for caustic chemicals such as paint thinner may require a bit more elbow grease. Whichever products you choose, follow label instructions for storage and handling.

2. If you must store chemicals, put them in a detached shed if possible.

3. If detached storage isn't an option, eliminate open connections between the storage site and indoor air. Sometimes these connections aren't obvious-loose holes for ductwork can introduce garage air into, say, an adjacent basement with an air return duct that collects and disperses VOCs all over the house. Don't store chemicals next to air return and supply vents, or directly next to the door leading into the house.

4. Open windows and run fans when youíre working with pungent chemicals. "In the indoor air quality industry, we have an axiom that's easy to remember," says Peter Frederick, principal scientist for MACTEC Engineering and Consulting in Lexington, Ky. "The solution to pollution is dilution." Trust your nose-keep a box fan on hand and ventilate whenever you smell chemicals. (Box fans start around $20 at home retail stores.) That includes any time you bring vinyl or plastic items (say, a new shower curtain) or dry-cleaned clothes into the house. If weather permits, set items outside for a while to off-gas-at least until they don't smell. Exercise moderation with open windows. Too much ventilation can introduce pollutants from outdoors and increase indoor humidity-particularly in humid climates when the A/C is running-which can lead to mold growth [LINK TO prevent mold article]. If you're doing a major task such as painting that requires opening windows to ventilate, consider using a dehumidifier in conjunction with your A/C. Keep in mind that portable air cleaning units aren't effective because they don't remove gases and humidity. And some even produce ozone, according to The Daily Green.

5. Use exhaust fans wisely. Bathroom and kitchen fans are great for removing VOCs from the air, especially because cooking and cleaning can release some potent, even carcinogenic, compounds. But if you run exhaust fans constantly, you create a zone of negative air pressure inside the house that draws outside air into the home. For instance, that could draw VOCs from your attached garage, including stored chemicals and car exhaust, into the house. Rather, run fans until any chemical or smoke smell dissipates and then turn them off. If you use your garage as a regular work area for VOC-generating hobbies, such as woodworking, consider installing an exhaust fan to the outside. Exhaust fans, available through online retailers, roughly range from $250 to $400.

6. Ditch air fresheners. The health evidence against plug-in and spray air fresheners is mounting; many emit chemicals and ultra-fine particulates that aren't identified on the label. Some also contain terpene, which reacts with naturally occurring ozone in the air and forms compounds that have long-term effects on the respiratory system (asthma, for example). Your health is important. With increased focus on energy efficiency and weatherization, don't forget that fresh air can be an important component of a smart house.

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