What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are substances that easily turn into gases from liquids or solids. They can be found in many man-made chemicals used in making paints, medicines, and coolants. Some examples of VOCs are solvents used in industries, like trichloroethylene, oxygenates used in fuels, like methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), and by-products produced during water treatment, like chloroform. VOCs are often found in petroleum fuels, hydraulic fluids, paint thinners, and dry cleaning agents. They are also common pollutants in groundwater.

VOCs are emitted as gases from certain liquids or solids. They include different chemicals, some of which can have harmful effects on health in the short and long term. Indoors, the concentration of many VOCs is usually higher (up to ten times higher) compared to outdoors. Many products emit VOCs, and there are thousands of them. Examples include paints, paint removers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, furniture, office equipment like printers and copiers, correction fluids, carbonless copy paper, art supplies like glue and adhesive, permanent markers, and photography solutions.

Organic chemicals are widely used in household products. Solvents made from organic compounds are found in paints, varnishes, waxes, cleaners, disinfectants, cosmetics, degreasers, and hobby products. Fuels are also made of organic chemicals. When you use these products, they release organic compounds into the air and, to some extent, even when they are stored.

Studies conducted by the EPA’s Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) have shown that levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants are 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes are in rural or highly industrial areas. Additional TEAM studies indicate that when people use products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high levels of pollutants, and these elevated concentrations can remain in the air for a long time after the activity is finished.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can also be present in rugs and carpets. Many carpets and rugs are made with synthetic materials that may contain VOCs. These VOCs can be released into the air, especially when the carpets are new or recently installed. The off-gassing of VOCs from carpets and rugs can contribute to indoor air pollution.

Some of the VOCs commonly found in carpets and rugs include formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylene. These chemicals can have both short-term and long-term health effects, ranging from eye and throat irritation to more serious respiratory problems and even potential carcinogenic effects with prolonged exposure.

To reduce exposure to VOCs from carpets and rugs, choosing products with low VOC emissions is recommended. Look for carpets and rugs that are certified as low-VOC or meet environmental standards for indoor air quality. It is also helpful to properly ventilate the space where the carpet or rug is installed by opening windows and using fans to circulate fresh air.

Additionally, allowing the carpet or rug to “off-gas” in a well-ventilated area before installation can help reduce VOC emissions. Regular vacuuming and cleaning of carpets can also help minimize the buildup of dust and pollutants, including VOCs.

If you are particularly sensitive to VOCs or have respiratory issues, it may be beneficial to opt for natural fibre carpets or rugs, such as those made from wool or organic cotton, as these materials tend to have lower VOC emissions compared to synthetic counterparts.

Overall, being aware of the potential presence of VOCs in carpets and rugs and taking measures to minimize exposure can contribute to a healthier indoor environment.