All About VOCs: Part II

In our last post, we walked you through the basics of volatile organic compounds—what they are, and why you should be aware of them. This time, we’re going deeper into the tawdry world of VOCs and sharing our top guidelines for reducing your exposure to these mean little chemicals.

Ugh, I feel like VOCs are everywhere! Should I just move into a brand new, perfectly clean apartment to get away from them?

Definitely not. New buildings actually have higher levels of VOCs than old ones because of the onslaught of products that are suddenly introduced into a relatively small space. If you do need to move to a new building, avoid buying pressed wood furniture and consider buying at least some antique furniture, which has had plenty of time for VOCs to off-gas. (You can also look for furniture with Greenguard certification.)

Is it possible that I’m allergic to my office? After I’ve been at work for a few hours, I start to feel physically ill and headachy, making it hard to focus.

Get back to work, you lazy bum! Just kidding. There’s actually a word for this phenomenon—“sick building syndrome”—and it refers to the combination of high-VOC furniture, upholstery, and poor ventilation can transform a space into a toxic VOC-dungeon. Talk to a manager about taking bigger steps to improve indoor air quality, because it’s hard to get quality work done when the air is making you sick. And in the meantime, go for a walk outside, and sit near an open window when you get back.

It’s greener to buy products in bulk. Right?

It depends on what you mean by “greener.” Better for the environment because bulk items use less packaging? Sure. But better for your health? Nope. Common household items and their packaging often contains VOCs. It’s impossible to avoid them completely, but you can greatly reduce your exposure by only buying what you need. If you can’t resist buying in bulk, try to store the extra products outdoors or in your garage.

Should I keep my windows closed to prevent pollutants from construction and smog from getting inside?

Unless you live in an extremely polluted area (think Delhi or Beijing), the quality of your indoor air is probably worse than the outdoor air. But opening a window helps a lot—so much, in fact, that in the winter, indoor VOC levels tend to be much higher because people keep their windows closed.

Is there something I can buy to, like, suck the VOCs out of the air?

Yes, actually, there is! VOCs can be removed from the air with activated carbon, which is found in air filters and HEPA air purifiers. When carbon is treated with oxygen (aka “activated” carbon), it forms tiny pores that can trap VOCs and other airborne pollutants. Here are two highly rated filters. You’ll notice that they’re not cheap, which is why we recommend first measuring your indoor air quality (with a device like Awair) and seeing whether lower-cost methods have an impact.

My smoker friend came over and now my whole house smells like cigarettes. Should I get an air freshener?

Not unless you want to add benzene and formaldehyde to your home. Here’s a better idea. You can get a window coating spray like this one that breaks down VOCs when exposed to light. This way, you’re not just covering up a bad-smelling VOC with a good-smelling one; you’re actually removing VOCs from the air.