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3 easy steps for testing for VOCs in your home



  • Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, exist primarily as gases at room temperature.


  • They are emitted by various consumer, industrial, and institutional products, and some can be detrimental to human health.


  • By making small adjustments in how you use certain products, you can reduce your exposure to these harmful chemicals.


 

Introduction

Have you noticed strange odours or health issues after purchasing furniture items, or a recent renovation that included new paint and carpets? The culprit could be volatile organic compounds off-gassing in your home.


So no matter your living situation, this guide will help walk you through VOC testing at home, and how you can easily test and understand your own indoor environment.


Understanding Volatile Organic Compounds in Your Indoor Environment

Have you ever noticed a lingering paint smell, a headache after buying new furniture, or a strong chemical scent from your cleaning products or laundry? These are all signs of VOCs in your environment.


VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that evaporate into the air, found in everyday items like furniture, wallpaper, paint, carpet, mattresses, curtains, adhesives, office equipment, and pesticides, further many everyday consumer items also release VOCs, such as cosmetics, hairspray, deodorant, cleaning products, dry cleaning and perfume (source).


VOCs pollute both the outdoor and indoor air, however their concentration indoors can be 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors, often triggering allergic reactions and serious health issues. These toxic chemicals can disrupt your immune system, affecting both humans and pets (source).


The easiest way to know if you have elevated levels of VOCs in your home is to run a test, which is quick and easy to do. I will walk you through the simple process below. But first, lets understand WHY VOCs are so dangerous in the first place.


baby sleeping in crib
Babies are especially vulnerable to the effects of poor indoor air quality

The Dangers of VOCs

There are thousands of VOCs, each with specific sources and characteristics.


  • Butanol is released from candles, gas stoves, and barbecues.

  • Acetone is commonly found in various household products.

  • Formaldehyde, one of the most prevalent VOCs, is present in engineered wood, furniture, and moulded plastic (source).

  • Other notable VOCs include benzene, ethylene glycol, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene.


The term "fragrance" often refers to a mix of VOCs, added to many products like cleaners to create a pleasant scent. This is why air fresheners can emit VOCs into your home or car.


Semi-volatile organic compounds include substances like phthalates, pesticides, and flame retardants.


Additionally, certain VOCs, such as trihalomethanes and solvents like TCE, can contaminate drinking water (source).

air filter in bedroom
Air Filtration with activated carbon will help control indoor air quality

Health Effects of VOC Exposure

Not all VOCs are created equal, and not ALL are harmful, but some have some very serious health effects (source)


Exposure to VOCs can lead to various health problems, depending on the type and duration of exposure (source):

  • Respiratory issues

  • Skin irritation

  • Headaches and nausea

  • Central nervous system damage

  • Organ damage (e.g., liver, kidney)

  • Various cancers, including lung cancer

  • Allergies and autoimmune diseases

  • Hair loss


Immediate symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, allergic skin reactions, brain fog, and sudden mood swings.


Vulnerable groups include

- Infants and young children

- Pregnant women

- Elderly individuals (65+ years)

- Smokers

- People with pre-existing conditions like asthma and heart disease


Symptoms can take months or even years to manifest, especially in newly built or recently renovated homes.

living room with a sofa and curtains.
Keep your indoor air quality monitored with simple home testing

Measuring VOCs: A Simplified Guide


Understanding how to measure VOCs can be complex, but here’s a simple breakdown.


What is VOC Testing?

VOCs are often measured as Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs). Different tools can measure these levels, providing an overall concentration in the air.


Recommended TVOC Limits

In Australia, there are no guidelines in place for workplace exposure to TVOCs nor are there guidelines or limits for TVOCs in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.


There are however standards for homes in the National Construction Code (NCC), which specifies maximum exposure levels for contaminants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, total volatile organic compounds, TVOC, formaldehyde and particles; PN10 and PM2.5


The maximum contaminant limits for TVOC specified in the IAQ Verification Methods is:

  • TVOC: 500 μg/m³ Averaged over one hour.

  • Formaldehyde: 0.1 mg/m3 Averaged over 30 minutes (0.08https://amzn.to/3VAsyDh


In the USA, the WELL Building standard recommends:

  • Formaldehyde levels less than 27 ppb

  • Total volatile organic compounds less than 500 μg/m³.


It’s important to use consistent measurements and understand that people sensitive to VOCs might react at lower levels than the standard thresholds.

dog sleeping on a sofa
Pets are also affected by poor indoor air quality

Testing for VOCs at Home

Testing for VOCs at home is straightforward. Here's how to do it:


Step 1: Order Your VOC Meter or testing kit


VOC meters and testing kits are easily found online. Reliable handheld VOC meters are available for about AUD 200 and up. They sample air continuously, measuring total VOC levels and sometimes specific compounds like formaldehyde.


Step 2: Conducting the Test

For handheld meters, let them air out before use, especially if stored in enclosed spaces. Place the meter in different areas of your home, taking an average reading after about 20 minutes.


For lab testing kits, follow the included instructions. Typically, this involves using an air pump and testing strips placed in glass test tubes.

Step 3: Analyse results

Be aware that harmless substances like vinegar or essential oils can skew your results, registering as VOCs. Different meters may detect different VOCs, so results can vary. Some kits offer specific tests for formaldehyde, mould, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.



Reducing VOCs in Your Home

If your test results show high VOC levels, take immediate action to improve your indoor air quality.


  • Check Labels: Many solvents and finishes indicate VOC emissions on their labels. California regulates VOCs in finishes, and many companies comply with these standards. Opt for no- or low-VOC paints.

  • Ingredient Transparency: Look for products that disclose all ingredients. Terms like "fragrance" or "surfactant" can indicate undisclosed chemicals.

  • Third-Party Verification: Select products with certifications like Greenguard GOLD, Green Seal GS-11 and Red List Free which limits VOCs and other harmful chemicals. This certification applies to a variety of products, including paint, primer, sealant, and coatings.

  • Water-Based Options:If Green Seal GS-11 products aren’t available, choose water-based paints and coatings. Milk paints are also a better choice.

  • Chose Fragrance-Free:

  • Avoid PVC: Whenever possible, avoid PVC plastic, which is notorious for VOC emissions.


Improve Indoor Air Quality

  • Increase air circulation by opening doors and windows and using fans.

  • Use natural cleaning and laundry products

  • Whenever possible, air out items like mattresses or furniture before bringing them into your home.

  • Choose furniture with low or no VOC emissions

  • Maintain indoor humidity levels between 30-50%

  • Use a HEPA air purification unit with activated carbon

  • Use water filters to remove VOCs from water

  • Avoid smoking or vaping indoors (or at all)

  • Opt for non-toxic pest control products

  • Store chemicals away from living area

  • Dispose of old paint and chemicals properly


Look for Certification

When purchasing products, such as a mattress, look for certifications such as the Greenguard GOLD, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS), and Global greentag. These certifications ensure lower VOC emissions.


In some cases, sealing surfaces with non-toxic paint can help reduce VOC emissions from walls, ceilings, and furniture.


Conclusion

Monitoring and reducing VOCs in your home is essential for maintaining a healthy living environment. With the right tools and actions, you can significantly improve your indoor air quality and protect your family’s health.

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