Environmental Series: Volatile Organic Compounds in the Home

Exposure to these compounds can have acute health effects on humans and their pets.

By Jeff Sorg, OnlineEd Blog

(July 20, 2017)

canstockphoto3219894toxic(PORTLAND, OR) Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain types of solids or liquids. A typical indoor environment may contain as many as 100 different compounds causing concentrations up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors.

Pesticides, cleaning agents, cosmetics, dry-cleaned clothing and fabrics, paints, varnishes, and waxes all contain organic solvents. All of these can release organic compounds while they are being used. Some can even release compounds while stored.

A common characteristic of all VOCs is that they will release gases into the atmosphere. These volatile compounds can be emitted as a gas for short or extended periods.

Exposure to VOCs can have acute or chronic health effects on humans and pets. Since the existing knowledge base of the toxicological effects of VOCs and their mixtures is incomplete, exposure to them should be minimized.

Two of the more common VOCs found in or about residential structures are formaldehyde and pesticides. As an example, let’s take a look at formaldehyde-containing building materials:

  • Glues and adhesives
  • Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI)
  • Pressed wood products (e.g., plywood, particleboard, paneling, and wood finishes)
  • Carpet
  • Laminated flooring materials
  • Cabinet fiberboards
  • Drapery materials
  • Used as a preservative in some paints and coating products

If the formaldehyde measurement levels are too high, further exposure to formaldehyde may be decreased by the following measures:

  • Use of exterior-grade pressed wood products. These products are lower emitting because they contain phenol resins and not urea resins.
  • Finding and removing the source is the most effective remedy, but is often unacceptable due to cost factors.
  • Avoid using building materials, furnishings, or other products that emit formaldehyde.
  • Increase ventilation after bringing new sources of formaldehyde into the home.
  • Use air conditioning and dehumidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and reduce humidity levels. The rate at which formaldehyde is released is accelerated by heat and may depend on the humidity levels present in the structure. Formaldehyde tends to double its level of off-gassing for every 10-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature.
  • Use alternative products such as lumber, metal, or solid wood furniture and cabinets.
  • Avoid the use of foamed-in-place insulation materials containing formaldehyde.
  • Enclose unfinished pressed wood surfaces of furniture, cabinets, and shelving with laminate, a water-based sealant, polyurethane varnish, oil-based alkyd resin paint, or thick vinyl film.
  • If purchasing a mobile home, insist that outdoor air is capable of being circulated into the home. Mobile home sellers are required under HUD standards to give prospective buyers a ventilation improvement information sheet before a sales agreement is reached.

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Jeff Sorg

About the Author

Jeff Sorg is a co-founder of OnlineEd®, a Web-based vocational school founded in 1997 where he also serves as Corporate Secretary, Chief Operating Officer, and School Director. Sorg holds vocational instructor licenses in Oregon, Washington, California, and Nevada and has authored numerous pre-licensing and continuing education courses. Sorg was awarded the International Distance Education Certification Center's CDEi Designation for distance education in 2008. OnlineEd® provides real estate, mortgage broker, insurance, and contractor pre-license, post-license, continuing education, career enhancement, and professional development and designation courses over the Internet.