What Do VOCs Have to Do with the Air We Breathe?

March 20, 2008

by Claris Olson, HSC Environmental Health Specialist

Indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools (and in any building, really) is affected by a huge array of factors that leaders in facility management and environmental health have been discussing for years; one of those factors that we’ve lately been hearing people talk about outside of the usual groups is VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds.

So just what are VOCs and what is contributing to them in the indoor environment?  In the Chicago Tribune article Breathing lessons: Furnishings, finishes, cleaning products add up to indoor pollution, Jeff Spurrier puts it simply: VOCs are any chemicals that at room temperature turn into gasses and mix with the air we breathe.

The list of VOCs includes hundreds of chemical compounds. (Some of the most commonly known are formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene.)

VOCs contaminate indoor air  and can cause problems ranging from headaches, nausea, fatigue, and to potentially long-term health effects. In schools, they’re especially dangerous for the millions of children who suffer from asthma. As Spurrier explains, the issue of VOCs and IAQ is growing. He writes:

Our lives already may be overloaded with acronyms, but get acquainted with one more: IAQ — indoor air quality. You probably will hear it much more in the years to come. Like climate change, IAQ is not a single problem. It’s a construct, a dizzying mix of factors that may contribute to headaches, nausea and other health-related complaints.

The growing concern about IAQ can be witnessed in the array of low-VOC paints, formaldehyde-free flooring and other products touting their clean composition. But green washing is prevalent, and the truth is that this problem — and its solutions — aren’t as clear as marketing slogans might suggest.

So what is in our homes that can give off VOCs and impair indoor air quality?  Not surprisingly, they are the same sources that are found in classrooms and offices.  VOC sources includes just about everything you will find in an interior space: paints, particle boards in bookshelves or cabinets, flooring systems, furniture, and let’s not forget cleaning products. 

Mold is also a source of harmful VOCs. Unfortunately, moldy materials are often ripped out and replaced with new materials that contain other harmful synthetic VOCs from the manufacturing process.

So what can you do about VOCs?  The best solution is to minimize furnishings containing VOCs in the first place. The U.S. Green Building Council LEED standard for schools recommends using furnishing products that meet the California Standards for low VOCs or meet the Green Guard standards. 

If you have an existing building and can’t afford a major renovation, consider increasing the amount of fresh air brought into your heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system to minimize the re-circulation of VOC-contaminated air. 

And finally, we should all remember to go for the low hanging fruit by switching to green cleaning and maintenance practices to stop the introduction of additional harmful chemicals into the indoor environment.