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PollutionAir quality

What Are VOCs?

When thinking about air pollution, what typically comes to mind? Maybe you think about bumper-to-bumper interstate traffic — or perhaps industrial smokestacks puffing toxins into the air. While you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking these things, you may want to take a step back to consider the air quality inside your home (Leung, 2015).

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the concentrations of some indoor pollutants are often up to two to five times higher than typical outdoor air. It’s concerning from a public health standpoint since Americans spend around 90 percent of their time indoors.

Fortunately, you can take steps to improve your air quality for a healthier home — such as steering clear of household products that emit harmful VOCs. But what are VOCs, and what can we actually do about them?

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are carbon-containing chemicals that easily vaporize into gases at room temperature and infiltrate the air around us. Even worse, VOCs can react with nitrogen oxide to contribute to ground-level ozone, which can have some serious long-term consequences (Liang et al., 2022).

Although these toxic chemicals can be naturally produced by plant and animal processes, they are most commonly manufactured by humans.

Some of the better-known VOCs are:

  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Toluene
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Ethylbenzene
  • Xylene
  • Hydrocarbons
  • Acetone
  • Ethyl acetate
  • Methyl ethyl ketone

What Are Common Sources of VOCs?

VOCs are everywhere. They’re a part of many popular products used by millions of people daily — and there are also byproducts of other actions and processes that can’t be avoided.

Here are some of the most common sources of VOCs.

Building Materials

Many building materials — such as carpet, insulation, adhesives, paints, upholstery, sealants, varnishes, and wood products — contain high levels of VOCs that are effectively trapped inside buildings once construction has been completed (Liu et al., 2022).

In a way, we almost “seal in” the bad stuff. And once these chemicals are in our homes, they are part of the air we constantly breathe, where they can wreak havoc on our health and quality of life.

Home and Personal Care Items

VOCs aren’t only found in building materials but in your favorite home decor and personal care items, too.

You can typically find these health-damaging chemicals in:

  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Furniture
  • Air fresheners
  • Pesticides
  • Cosmetics and deodorants
  • Dry cleaning chemicals
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Fuel oil and gasoline

Hobbies and Activities

While it’s common knowledge that tobacco smoke contains harmful chemicals, you might be surprised to learn that VOCs are prevalent in many hobbies and everyday activities.

If your favorite hobbies involve using glue, paints, or sealers, you could be adding VOCs to your indoor air with every brush stroke or 3D printer project.

Some hobbies, like 3D printing, can release ultrafine particles capable of working deeper into the respiratory system. Of course, there are different kinds of filament, so the number and type of particles released may vary, though ABS filament is regarded as one of the worst.

Some surprising sources of VOCs include:

  • Arts and crafts products (like glue, permanent markers, and modeling cement)
  • Office printers and copiers
  • 3D printing process using ABS filament
  • Polyurethane foam
  • Wood burning stoves

What Are Possible Health Effects of VOC Exposure?

To truly understand the need to take VOCs seriously, it’s important to know the adverse health effects they can have (Rafiq et al., 2022).

Short-Term Exposure

The possible health effects of VOCs will depend on the type and length of exposure. Some VOCs are highly toxic, while others have minimal health effects.

When released into the air, however, even relatively low levels can cause uncomfortable symptoms, including:

  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Headaches
  • Loss of coordination
  • Nosebleeds
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

In addition, some people may experience an allergic skin reaction, such as itching, rashes, or hives. Those with asthma and other lung illnesses may also have their conditions aggravated by exposure to VOCs.

Long-Term Exposure

Short-term exposure to VOC emissions can be quite the headache (literally), but long-term exposure is far worse. Exposure to high concentrations and for extended periods can increase your health risks.

These risks include:

  • Prolonged eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Chronic headaches and migraines
  • Liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage
  • Some types of cancer
  • Pulmonary disease (Liao et al., 2022)

What’s more, the World Health Organization says pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under five years old—and guess what? Poor air quality via VOCs is a leading risk factor.

When your little one breathes in unhealthy air, it goes deep into their lungs, where the smallest and most dangerous pollution particles can reach their bloodstream. From increased respiratory issues like coughing and wheezing to decreased lung function, there’s no denying that these common pollutants are especially damaging to children.

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to fresh air or low-VOC products. However, we can do a few things to help clean up the air we breathe.

How Can I Reduce VOC Levels in My Home?

Now that you’re up to speed on the dangers of toxins in the household, let’s go over three ways you can reduce VOC levels in your home.

Source Control

A surefire way to keep harmful pollutants in check is by using an indoor air quality monitor that keeps you updated on the air quality levels in your home. You can also reduce VOC levels by simply controlling the source.

For example, scented candles and air fresheners are known to contribute to poor air quality, so avoiding these products whenever possible can reduce the risk of toxins being released into the air inside your home. Additionally, household products that include organic chemicals or solvents can contribute to high concentrations of VOCs.

Other consumer products that release VOCs include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Wood fire smoke
  • Propane grills
  • Incense

Go Green

To improve interior air quality while making your living space a little bit more eco-friendly, go green. Choose organic home cleaning products and personal care items. Seek out items with minimal packaging and look for certifications — like Ecocert, Cosmos, and EWG — so you know the products you’re bringing into your home are truly organic.

Note: Need to paint? Some paints are formulated without harmful chemicals, so be on the lookout for those advertised as VOC-free.

Ventilation and Filtration

Arguably, one of the easiest ways to make sure you get enough fresh, clean air into your home is by opening a few windows. Keeping your living space adequately ventilated is always important to support healthy indoor air quality.

This is especially true if you use paint or bring VOC sources into your home, such as new furniture, carpets, or drapes that don’t meet low VOC standards for Greenguard Certification.

In addition to opening windows and doors, you can invest in an air purifying unit to reduce the levels of contaminants in your indoor air. However, many air purifiers have been proven to pollute more air than they purify.

The Right Houseplant

A lot of people will recommend buying houseplants since it’s common belief that they can purify indoor air from pollutants like carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and other potentially harmful organic compounds.

But the truth is: you’d need a lot of houseplants to have any real impact.

While there’s no denying the aesthetics of regular houseplants, when it comes to improving ambient air quality, Neoplants are the one and only way to go.

Why? Neoplants are meticulously bioengineered to remove VOCs like toluene, benzene, xylene, ethylbenzene, and formaldehyde from the air so you and your loved ones can breathe easier.

Neo P1 is up to 30 times more powerful than most conventional houseplants, and works hard to recycle the four main VOCs into water, sugar, amino acids, and oxygen — all thanks to metabolism engineering and directed evolution of the Golden Pothos plant.

The Bottom Line

We spend approximately 90 percent of our lives indoors — but it’s also one of the most polluted places to be. In short, our homes can be a cesspool for toxins.

High levels of volatile organic compounds found in common building materials, household products, and personal care items are easily emitted into the environment, where they poison the air we breathe.

Fortunately, we can take steps to combat harmful VOCs and ultimately improve our indoor air quality with sustainable solutions — that’s the whole reason we created Neoplants.

Using synthetic biology to develop the first generation of indoor plants that can effectively purify the ambient air in your home, Neoplants are the plants of the future.

Join the mailing list to be the first to know about all things Neoplants.

Ready to join our mission and start working with nature instead of consuming it? Click here to join us and stay in the loop about all things Neoplants as we bring to life this radically new way of breathing cleaner air.


Bibliography:

Leung DYC (2015): Outdoor-indoor air pollution in urban environment: challenges and opportunity. Front. Environ. Sci. 2:69. doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2014.00069

Liang, S., et al. (2022): Characteristics, sources of volatile organic compounds, and their contributions to secondary air pollution during different periods in Beijing, China. Sci Total Environ. 858(Pt 2):159831. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.159831.

Liao, Q., et al. (2022): Risk assessment and dose-effect of co-exposure to benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and styrene (BTEXS) on pulmonary function: A cross-sectional study. Environ. Pollut. 310. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2022.119894.

Liu, N., et al. (2022): Early-Stage Emissions of Formaldehyde and Volatile Organic Compounds from Building Materials: Model Development, Evaluation, and Applications. Environ. Sci. Technol. 56:20. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.2c04572.

Rafiq, L., et al. (2022): Exploring the links between indoor air pollutants and health outcomes in South Asian countries: a systematic review. Rev Environ Health. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2022-0154.


Other Sources:

Indoor Air Quality | US EPA

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)? | US EPA

Volatile Organic Compounds | American Lung Association

3D Printing Research at EPA | US EPA

Recent 3D Printer Emissions Research at EPA | Science Inventory | US EPA

Children: Improving Survival and Well-Being | WHO

Children’s Exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds as Determined by Longitudinal Measurements in Blood | PMC

UL GREENGUARD Certification Program | UL

Study: Indoor Air Cleaners Fall Short on Removing Volatile Organic Compounds | Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Role of Indoor Plants in Air Purification and Human Health in the Context of COVID-19 Pandemic | A Proposal for a Novel Line of Inquiry