What are VOCs, and how can I avoid them?

VOCs: you've probably heard the term, but might be unsure about what exactly they are.

What are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are carbon-containing substances that easily become vapors or gases. They can be present in paints, coatings such as varnishes and cleaning products. In coatings, the solvents containing VOCs assist with the quality of application and drying, so that a substance like paint does not streak on a surface. However, they can cause respiratory and other health problems when used indoors. In addition, certain kinds of carpet, composite wood and other building materials can contain VOCs.

How do they affect the air quality of my home?

According to the EPA, the extent of health effects from VOCs can vary widely, depending on the level and length of exposure. Symptoms of overexposure to VOCs can range from simple throat irritation to nervous system damage. Levels of VOCs in indoor environments, such as the home, can be up to 1,000 times what they would be outdoors. That's why it's so important to make informed decisions about what you are putting on your walls, furniture and floors.

How can I avoid having high VOC content in my home?

  • Look for low- or no-VOC products for painting, varnishing and cleaning in your home. 
  • Open windows and allow for as much cross-ventilation as possible during and after a project.
  • Safely dispose of any leftover amounts of products you do not intend to use up soon.
  • If you are building a home, make sure your contractor is experienced in choosing safe materials.