What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and What Can You Do About Them?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gases emitted into the air from processes and products. Some are harmful just by themselves. They can also react with other types of gases, forming other air pollutants after they’re in the air.

You can divide VOCs contaminants into several main categories:

Biologicals (mold, dust mites, animal dander, etc.)
Tobacco smoke
Combustion products (ovens, fireplaces, heaters)
Heavy metals like mercury vapor and airborne lead
Chemicals like pesticides, formaldehyde, pain (interior and exterior), solvents, air fresheners and cleaning products

Radon and asbestos are two -long-term VOC risk factors.

Breathing in VOCs can cause irritation to your nose, eyes and throat. It can also cause nausea and difficulty breathing and can damage your central nervous system and other organs. Some can even cause cancer. VOCs might not cause all these health effects, but there are many that can cause several.

What Can You Do About VOCs?
The answer to this question is simple — add ventilation.

Ventilation moves air from the outdoors into a room or building, distributing the air in the room or building. The main purpose of ventilation in homes is to provide healthy breathing air by diluting and removing pollutants originating in the building.

Ventilation can take a couple forms. These are:

Natural Ventilation
Natural forces (i.e. wind) drive air from the outdoors through purpose-built openings which include:

Wind towers
Solar chimneys
Trickle ventilators

Natural ventilation depends on the building design, climate and human behavior.

Mechanical Ventilation
There are several whole-house mechanical ventilation system types: supply-only, exhaust-only and balanced.

This consists of a fan that draws outdoor air into your home. Indoor air escapes through exhaust fan ducts and building enclosure.

Exhaust-only ventilation consists of a fan, typically a bath fan that exhausts indoor air. Outdoor air is drawn into your home through building enclosure leaks.

Balanced ventilation combines supply and exhaust methods to provide equal indoor exhaust and outdoor supply air flow.

Whole House Fan
A good example of a mechanical ventilation is a whole house fan. You use a whole house fan to draw fresh outdoor air into your home to improve ventilation. A whole house fan can clean your home’s indoor air in various ways, which is important for drawing out VOCs.

The EPA estimates indoor air has two to five times more air pollutants than outdoor air. And, people spend around 90 percent of their time in their homes.

Whole house fans provide ventilation in a way that’s different than other ventilation methods. They not only remove the bad air from your home, but also bring in the clean, fresh outdoor air into your home. Whole house fans also remove chemicals released into the air from cooking and showering that could contain VOCs.

There are numerous ways you can decrease the number of indoor air pollutants and VOCs in your home. The EPA provides a comprehensive indoor air quality guide which includes steps to reduce exposure.