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Part I: What are VOCs & How Can I Protect Myself?

Part I: What are VOCs & How Can I Protect Myself?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are small particles in the air that could be bad for your health. Here is what you need to know to protect yourself.

When people think of air pollution, they mostly think of big cities with lots of buildings, factories and cars and less about their own homes. However, within our own four walls there is the presence of airborne particles called Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs that can adversely impact our health.

Indoor air pollution is something people need to be aware of, especially during winter seasons and corona-isolations, as people spend more time in their homes. So, what exactly are these air pollutants and how can you protect yourself against them?

What are VOCs?

VOCs are organic chemical compounds that are highly volatile, meaning they can easily be generated and released as gasses from different solid and liquid materials. VOCs are toxic and certain ones are known to be harmful when inhaled, like benzene and toluene. Others are considered less harmful, but still can have adverse health effects. Yet, these compounds have become basic ingredients in many household products.

VOCs are also the reason for the many smells that roam our hallways. With a slice of a citric orange in your all purpose cleaner, the toasting of bread in the oven, and a spritz of perfume, the familiar pleasing scents are all from VOCs. While VOCs can be the cause for serious health concerns it might be a matter of how much exposure we have.

How toxic are VOCs in the home?

If our homes are overflowing with VOCs, how much is actually harmful to our health. A research initiative called the House Observation of Microbial and Environmental Chemistry (HOMEchem) at the University of Colorado set out to answer that question. HOMEchem probes how everyday activities influence the emission of airborne particles and they set an experiment to mimic a popular activity that people ardently anticipate each year; preparing a Thanksgiving feast. The team steamed potatoes, toasted dinner rolls and roasted their turkeys all while their kitchen countertops were jammed with machines analyzing the airborne particles in the room.

With rigid protocols for cooking temperatures, settings and timing, Thanksgiving was transformed into a reproducible valid study. But after nearly an hour in the kitchen, the team found alarming peaks in fine particle matters that were within the range that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines as ‘very unhealthy’, and would cause a city with such levels to be categorized as polluted.

Are gas stoves bad for your health?

While the exaggerated cooking preparations probably happen only a few times a year for most families, the study highlights that VOCs are a cause of concern.

According to the American Lung Association, gas stoves which directly combust natural gas, are one the major sources of indoor air pollutants. And VOCs are not only inherently harmful but can react with other pollutants in the air creating higher toxic substances that can harm the lungs and in some cases cause cancer or damage to the central nervous system.

The EPA lists more common side effects, like irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, headaches and difficulties for people with allergies.


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