Evidence suggests that COVID-19 lockdowns have significantly improved outdoor air quality. In the northeastern U.S., NASA registered a 30% drop in air pollution. UK researchers believe cleaner air has saved thousands of lives. In China, meanwhile, a recent study even suggests that lockdown “has saved more lives through improved air quality than were lost to COVID-19.”
Unfortunately, the opposite is true for indoor air quality. As many Awair Omni users have noticed, in the COVID-19 era, indoor VOC levels are spiking. As Forbes have reported: “The coronavirus outbreak is bringing indoor air quality into the spotlight… CEOs are looking for answers on how to safely reopen offices, hospitality, recreational, education, and other facilities while giving employees, customers, and students peace of mind.”
Why are indoor VOCs currently peaking? What can be done about it, and how/where does a VOC sensor come in?
What are VOCs and why are they harmful?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a large group of chemicals that are commonly found in the home. Once these chemicals find their way inside, they are released or “off-gas” into the indoor air we breathe. VOCs are generally measured as a cohesive group (Total VOCs); the Awair VOC sensor reacts to over fifty.
VOCs are found in building materials, especially paint and varnishes; and home and personal care products, such as cleaning products and cosmetics. They can also be created by certain indoor activities. Inhaling VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat; can cause breathing difficulties and nausea; and can damage the central nervous system and other organs.
Why are VOCs spiking right now?
Unfortunately, VOCs are a particular problem with indoor (as opposed to outdoor) air. The EPA reports that “concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.” And here’s the kicker: this is in normal times. In the COVID-19 era, conditions are exacerbated even further.
Why? Here’s Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University: “Spending more time in our home increases our exposure to chemicals emitted by building materials, furnishings, electronics and other consumer products. The pandemic also seems to be spurring many of us to cook and clean more. Those two activities are known to contaminate indoor air.”
The VOC risks of cooking, cleaning and redecorating
With everyone spending lots more time at home, people are cooking, cleaning, and redecorating more than ever. Sadly, pleasurable as these activities can be, they are a known source of VOCs.
Worried about the virus that causes COVID-19, everyone is cleaning constantly, in an attempt to eradicate the virus from counters, doorknobs, even groceries. Cleaning products can produce temporary spikes of chloramines, a class of chemicals that are known to inflame airway membranes. Dishwashers also contribute to VOC emissions indoors – heat from their drying cycles vaporize chlorinated water into chloroform. Moreover, the combination of fumes from bleach-based mopping and gas burner ignition produces nitryl chloride (commonly found in smog).
Cooking is another issue. “Cooking can generate unhealthy air pollutants from heating oil, fat and other food ingredients, especially at high temperatures,” says Maria Ahnlund, of the mask company Airinum. “Self-cleaning ovens, whether gas or electric, can create high levels of pollutants as food waste is burned away.” With restaurants closed, people are cooking most nights, making this another current cause of VOC spikes.
Lastly, when it comes to redecorating, paints are one of the number one sources of VOCs. These volatile organic compounds serve an important role in solidifying paint. As it dries, types of VOC in paint evaporate and are released into the air. Once again, people have been redecorating to pass the time during lockdown, upping their VOC exposure.
How do you mitigate the risks of VOCs?
The main, most direct action you can take to reduce VOC levels indoors is to secure good ventilation in your home. Open windows to air out your house at least once a day, or whenever you’re cooking. Always run your range hood when you cook or after you run the dishwasher.
Some other steps you can take to lessen volatile organic compounds sources in your home include the following:
- Use low-VOC (paint with less than 250 grams of VOCs per liter) or no-VOC (five grams or less of VOCs per liter) paints.
- Avoid pans with non-stick coating.
- Avoid PVC-made food containers, children’s toys, and plastic wrap. This includes household plastics like food packages and storage.
- Choose furniture, carpet padding, and mattresses that don’t have stain- and water-resistant coatings and are free of all fire retardants (PBDEs, TDCIPP, and others).
- Switch to green cleaning products.
How a VOC sensor can play a key role in protecting your health
Knowledge is power. A foundational step toward reducing the VOCs in your indoor air is knowing when there are VOCs in your indoor air. Unfortunately, our human senses aren’t up to the job. We need technology’s help.
A good indoor air quality (IAQ) monitor should include a VOC sensor that can alert you to when VOCs in your indoor air reach problematic levels. Awair’s air quality solutions are affordable units that track the toxins and chemicals in your home, and let you know the moment your air quality becomes unhealthy. Every Awair product includes a VOC sensor so that you are alerted when your VOCs are high. You can then assess the situation through an easy-to-read dashboard and mobile app, and take steps to rectify the situation.