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Reducing VOC Exposure PDF Print

Many people do not think of Indoor Air Quality as a “Green” concept.  If you think about it though, reducing the contaminants in the air we breathe plays as important a role in our quality of life as decreasing the trash we generate or the energy we consume.  The more that we crowd our air with unwanted contaminants, the less clean, usable air we have left to breathe.  In a confined interior environment, the opportunity to find clean air to breathe is greatly reduced because of the limited space and the cleansing of the existing air.  If we can reduce the contaminants that are introduced into an interior environment, then we have less to purge in order to make the air “safe” for breathing.



Contaminants that are released into the air are called Volatile Organic Compounds or (VOC’s).  These are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that will evaporate at room temperature (Minnesota-Health).  Several important characteristics of VOC’s are:

·         Many  have a distinct odor, but not all do
·         The “strength” of the odor is not always proportionate to the level of risk
·         VOC’s react with other elements to produce ozone
·         Indoor VOC levels can be 10 times higher than outdoor levels

Common Sources:

There are many consumer products that release VOC’s into the air.  Some of the everyday sources are:

·         Paint
·         Adhesives and Caulk
·         Carpet
·         Solvents and Varnishes
·         Air Fresheners
·         Cleaners and Disinfectants
·         Fuel Oil for indoor heaters
·         Photocopiers
·         Smoking
·         Newspapers

One of the largest sources of VOC emissions is painting.  In fact, the only source of VOC’s that is higher than painting is automobile emissions.  The reason that paint is such a large source of VOC’s is due to the chemical process that occurs when painting.  The process is due to the connection of the three components of paint.  These are:

·         Pigment - give color to the paint
·         Binders - help the pigment stick to the wall
·         Solvents - keep the paint in liquid form until it is applied

Solvents are the largest contributors to VOC’s emissions.  The solvent evaporates quickly after the painting process so that only the pigment and binders are left on the wall.  It is important to note that the level of VOC emissions immediately following painting can be 1000 times higher than standard outdoor levels.  Even though VOC levels are high immediately after painting, we need to realize that they will continue to emit for years to come.  In fact, it is possible that only 50% of the VOC’s will be gone after the first year (Howstuffworks).


Exposure Problems:

Decreasing VOC levels is important because they have many adverse and harmful effects on our health (Minnesota-Health). 

Short term exposure can result in:

·         Eye, nose and throat irritation
·         Headaches
·         Nausea
·         Dizziness
·         Breathing problems

Long term exposure can cause:

·         Cancer
·         Liver Damage
·         Kidney Damage


We can limit the problem of VOC emissions by using products that are low in VOC content.  The area that we can have the most impact is with our paint products.  No-VOC paints have fewer than 5 grams of VOC’s per liter.  Low VOC latex paints must have levels less than 250 grams per liter while the majority has less than 50 grams per liter (TreeHugger).   It is important to remember that these measurements are taken before pigments have been added which can increase the VOC content by as much as 10 grams per liter (Howstuffworks).

When using these low VOC products, remember that they will not react the same as the high VOC products that you are used to.  Some common differences include:

·         Increased difficulty in applying the paint
·         Increased drying time between coats
·         Decreased color options because darker colors contain more VOC’s
·         Increased number of coats required


Using low VOC products is extremely beneficial to the micro environment in our homes and the larger environment around us.  The best way that we can reduce the emission of VOC’s after limiting the use of our automobiles is to change the paints that we are using.  Using low-VOC paints will significantly reduce our exposure to harmful chemical vapors and will increase our chances for a healthy body.  Reducing the use of other high VOC products such as cleaners, adhesives and caulk will help to improve air quality but to a much lesser degree.  In the end, every effort that we make, no matter how small, is important in our challenge to decrease our carbon footprint and sustain our planet for the next generation.


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