The Effects of VOCs on Indoor Air Quality

Last Monday I spent two or three hours cleaning my apartment.

It’s a long time to be cleaning, I know. If I’m being honest, it had been awhile since I’d really properly done a deep cleaning, and it was starting to get on my nerves. So, I took out the trash, did several loads of dishes, scrubbed down the counters and stovetop, and cleaned every available surface in the bathroom. By the time I’d finished I was quite satisfied with my newly clean space, and proceeded to lounge about for the rest of the afternoon, having completed my main goal for the day. As I sat there, though, the smell of lemon-scented Clorox lingering in the air, I started wondering whether my cleaning routine could be creating its own problems. Sure, my counters might be free of 99.9% of bacteria, but what other effects could that be having? However, if we’re going to talk about how common household cleaning products can affect indoor air quality, it’s important to know what exactly is dangerous about them.

VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are organic chemicals that have a low vapor pressure. This usually results from a low boiling point, and means more molecules of these chemicals tend to evaporate into the air than in other compounds. Now, there are all sorts of VOCs, both naturally occurring and manmade, and not all of them are dangerous. In fact, many of the ones that are dangerous aren’t lethal, though they can still have both short and long-term effects on your health. Dizziness, headaches, and respiratory irritation, for example, can present when a person is exposed to high levels of VOCs for a short period. The most dangerous thing about VOCs, however, is that they can react with other chemicals already in the air to create compounds like formaldehyde that are often more of a health threat than the VOCs themselves. Aerosol sprays, ionizers, and lemon and pine scented cleaning products in particular are known for this, but this doesn’t mean they’re the only offenders. Deodorizers, surface cleaners, and disinfectants among others can all release VOCs when used, and children in particular are more at risk for adverse health effects like asthma and allergies after long-term exposure, and in rare cases even Legionnaire’s disease, carbon monoxide poisoning, and cancer. Additionally, since many of these products get washed down the drains and end up in the soil and water, they can have negative effects on the outside environment as well as getting back into your home through other avenues like soil vapor intrusion, the process by which potentially dangerous vapors escape from the soil and contaminate the air in the building above. Considering all this you may decide it’s in your own best interests to make a change.
 So, now that you know about the effects your cleaning products might be having, how can you take more control of the air quality in your home? Below is a list of suggestions you can use to make your own plan for going VOC free, but you may have your own ideas as well! Take a look, and comment below if you have any ideas you think should be added.
  • Learn to make use of these six easy cleaning ingredients: lemon juice, vinegar, salt, olive oil, club soda, and baking soda. They’re all relatively affordable, and you’ve likely already got many of them in your pantry! Try out this list of suggestions for using them from alternet.

  • If you decide to change the cleaning products you’re using in your home, try looking for products that are Greenguard certified. They certify products which meet very strict indoor chemical emissions levels. You can find a list of products that meet this standard here.

  • If you decide to keep your standard cleaning products, do your best to limit the length of time you spend using them. The shorter it is, the less time there is for VOCs to get in your air, so only use them for the absolute minimum amount of time required to get things clean.

  • Always make sure the space you’re cleaning in is well ventilated. Try leaving a window open or running a fan after cleaning to limit or lower the concentration of vaporized chemicals in the air. 

  • Get rid of any old cleaning products you don’t use anymore, as they can still emit vapors that contain VOCs even if you’re not actively using them.

  • Store any cleaning products you use in a tightly sealed container, ideally away from well-trafficked areas, so you can limit exposure as much as possible.

  • Remember that products labelled “green” or “natural” are not necessarily safe or effective. It may make you feel better to use these sorts of products, but they’re not currently well-regulated or defined, so always make sure to do your research before using them.