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4 hidden sources of VOCs in your home, and how to avoid them

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Your indoor air can contain a ‘toxic soup’ of chemicals that nature didn’t intend us to inhale.  

We constantly hear about outdoor air pollution, but how often does indoor air pollution hit the headlines?

The US Environmental Protection Agency advises that there could be 2-5 times more pollutants in indoor air than in outdoor air, making it one of the top 5 environmental risks to public health. And as we take on average over 20,000 breaths per day, it makes sense to ensure that the air we breathe is as pure as possible!

We generally all seek to keep levels of allergens in our indoor air as low as possible. However there is one class of pollutants that is often forgotten about – VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).

What are VOCs?

VOCs are compounds that are emitted from certain types of liquids or solids, in the form of gases. These include both synthetic chemicals (like formaldehyde) and natural sources (like fungi). They are found in many different types of commonly used household products, and present in just about all indoor air.

Sometimes these have an odour (like the ‘new car smell’), but this doesn’t give any indication as to whether they are safe to inhale or not.

Studies have suggested that some VOCs can cause lung irritation, especially in children. They can also make respiratory allergy symptoms worse, for example asthma. If you have multiple chemical sensitivity, you may experience unpleasant health effects as a result of exposure to VOCs.

What symptoms can they cause?

Common short-term symptoms that have been reported as a result of exposure to VOCs include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Irritated airways and mucous membranes


Exposure to VOCs can also have long term effects. For example, benzene (given off by tobacco smoke and car exhaust) is a human carcinogen. Other types of VOCs, like methylene chloride (found in aerosol spray paints) have been linked to cancer in animals.

Where can VOCs be found?

VOCs can be emitted from many everyday items. Here are some of the most common sources and what you can do about them:

1. Furniture

VOCs like formaldehyde can be ‘off-gassed’ by common items such as MDF furniture, and memory foam mattresses. They can also be found in some types of upholstered furniture and carpets.

What can you do?

If practical, consider using natural wood furniture and flooring. Instead of memory foam, choose an organic mattress which helps to avoid the problem of off-gassing.

2. Household paint

Traditional paint and related products, such as paint stripper, can include a whole host of toxic chemicals. As paint dries, solvents get released into the air in the form of VOCs. Some suggest that these can continue to be released for years after the paint has dried!

What can you do?

Choose VOC and solvent free paints. The Lakeland (formerly known as Ecos) range has an excellent pigment content and colour depth. It’s the paint of choice for the Allergy UK and Healthy House offices! The range is 7000 times purer than standard low odour paints and comes in hundreds of classic and on trend colours. Click here to view the Lakeland Paints range.

3. Flooring and building materials

Carpets tend to emit high levels of VOCs in the first few days after they have been installed.  Vinyl flooring (made from polyvinyl chloride) can be strengthened with a number of chemicals, which can offgass for years after installation.

What can you do?

Choose natural wood or bamboo flooring if practical. However, be sure to check the ingredients of the glues and varnishes used to treat them.

4. Household and personal care products

Non-stick cookware can release toxins into the air when heated. Air fresheners can contain phthalates, which have been linked to hormone problems. Some also contain formaldehyde and benzene. Other items like fabric softeners and dryer sheets can also emit VOCs.

What can you do?

It can be very difficult to find VOC-free household and personal care products, but we suggest that where possible look for natural or organic alternatives. Always look for products free from synthetic fragrances.

The Sodasan range is a good choice for cleaning products, and generally well tolerated. Avoid aerosols like hairspray and solvents wherever possible. For example, instead of using a spray deodorant, why not try a natural roll-on instead? Traditional nail polish and remover emit VOCs, so let your nails breathe and go for the natural look instead!

We believe in going ‘perfume-free’ at The Healthy House. Synthetic fragrances not only emit VOCs; they can also cause reactions in asthmatics, along with triggering symptoms in those with MCS.

An air purifier can really help

Some air purifiers can actually remove chemicals and gases (including VOCs) from your indoor air.

If you’re sensitive to plastics or have MCS, there are air purifiers with steel or aluminium casings available. The Blueair SmokeStop range and the Roomaid HEPA with VOC canister and Multizorb canister are ideal.

The below air purifiers remove chemicals – click here to view the full range. Be sure to check that the room size meets your individual requirements.  



VOCs in your home – Minnesota Department of Health

Wikipedia on VOCs

VOCs and flooring

UK Parliament report on indoor air quality

Article from the EPA

The invisible health threat in your home

Disclaimer: Information included in this website is intended for information purposes only and is not to be used as a substitute for consultation with a medical practitioner.

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