How to Avoid Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds, found in paint, caulk, cleaning supplies, carpet and wood, can be damaging to your health.
Paint Swatches

Paint Swatches

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in paint, caulk, cleaning supplies, carpet, wood, even items from the grocery store -- and they can be damaging to your health. You can't entirely eliminate these compounds from your daily life, but you can minimize the amount.

Volatile organic compounds are gases released as materials age and degrade over time. There are hundreds of VOCs -- from formaldehyde and ethanol to vinyl, adhesives and varnishes. Even felt-tip pens are a source. The smell in a new car is perhaps one of the most noticeable examples of VOCs, as the interior plastics emit gases.

VOCs can cause allergic reactions such as asthma, headaches, upper respiratory infections, rashesm even cancer.

Wallcoverings and VOCs

  • Read labels to find low-VOC products and purchase nontoxic paint.
  • Use water-based polyurethane that emits fewer gases than oil-based products. For the same reason, natural or low-VOC stains, sealants and varnishes are also healthier choices.
  • Avoid vinyl wall covering, as well as vinyl upholstery and flooring. Vinyl is a chemical radical emitting various gases.
  • Tightly rolled wallpaper can trap gases, so unroll outdoors to allow gases to dissipate before hanging indoors.

Low-VOC Flooring Alternatives

  • Vinyl and synthetic carpets are high in VOCs. Instead, look for natural fibers such as wool, sisal and cotton.
  • Although hardwood floors are easy to clean and might seem like a good solution, hardwoods include formaldehydes, and all finishes emit VOCs. A good alternative is presealed hardwood, or hardwood sealed with water-based polyurethane.
  • Ceramic tile is inert, emitting no gases. Linoleum is clinically nontoxic. Other allergy-friendly flooring includes bamboo, cork or recycled glass.
  • To minimize the VOCs found in adhesives, select low-VOC or water-based products.
  • Carpet should include a low-emission level (indicated by a Carpet and Rug Institute tag). Select carpet that's free of chemicals with a low nap. Avoid installation in damp areas (bath and kitchen). Install with tack strips, rather than adhesive, and make sure a moisture barrier is in place before the carpet is installed.
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