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Why VOCs Are Dangerous & How to Choose Non-Toxic, Low-VOC Materials

May 07, 20247 min read

Welcome to the second week of our exploration into indoor air quality and health in high-performance homes. This week, we focus on the crucial aspect of material selection and its impact on indoor air quality (IAQ).

When selecting materials for a home, many homebuilders and homeowners focus on durability and aesthetics. While these are essential elements, there’s an often overlooked component that can have a significant impact on the long-term health of the residents: toxicity.

Volatile organic compound (VOC) materials are found in thousands of products we use daily, as well as common building materials. Choosing non-toxic, low-VOC materials doesn’t just create a healthier indoor environment. It protects the ozone and outdoor environment as well.

In this blog, we’ll explore how VOCs impact a home, how to choose low-VOC materials when building a house, and what you should do in instances where low-VOC alternatives are not an option.

How VOCs & Toxic Chemicals Impact Home Owners Health

What Are VOCs and How Do They Impact Your Health

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that can easily vaporize into the air at room temperature. Some well-known VOCs include formaldehyde, chloroform, benzene, and ethylene glycol. 

These chemicals are found in thousands of products and materials, many of which you probably have in your own garage. The most common sources include:

  • Paints, paint strippers, and solvents

  • Wood preservatives

  • Building materials and furnishings

  • Aerosol sprays

  • Flooring materials

  • Cleansers, air fresheners, and disinfectants

  • Moth repellents

  • Gasoline and automotive products

  • Office equipment like copiers and printers

  • Glues, permanent markers, spray paint, and photographic materials

  • Dry-cleaning supplies

  • Certain pesticides

According to the EPA's Office of Research and Development's "Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study", VOC levels are 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, both in rural and industrial areas. These levels shoot up to 1,000 times higher during and several hours after certain activities like paint stripping.

When you use products with these organic compounds, you can unintentionally expose yourself to very high pollutant levels. Another thing to keep in mind is that elevated VOC concentrations can linger in the air for hours and even days after the activity is completed.

Common Sources of VOCs in Residential Homes

VOCs are not always immediately harmful, but prolonged exposure to high levels can lead to a range of dangerous health problems. Some VOCs are even suspected or proven carcinogens. The most common health issues associated with VOCs include:

  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation

  • Headaches 

  • Fatigue

  • Allergic reactions

  • Nosebleeds

  • Loss of coordination

  • Memory problems

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Dizziness

  • Damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system

  • Potential increased risk of cancer

The health of those inside the home isn’t the only thing at risk when VOC levels are too high. When leached into outdoor air, VOCs react to nitrogen oxide in the air, contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone. This results in smog, impacts the surrounding climate, and can be hazardous to the health of anyone outdoors.

In the UK, the Volatile Organic Compounds in Paints, Varnishes and Vehicle Refinishing Products Regulations of 2012 states the ideal VOC amount in a home should be 0.29% or less. Similarly, the World Health Organization recommends 0-400 parts per billion.

The Benefits of Using Low-VOC Construction Materials

The Benefits of Using Non-Toxic and low-VOC Materials

1. Improved Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality plays a key role in how healthy a home is, for the occupants and the environment. The benefits of maintaining clean, healthy air are clear.

By choosing non-toxic and low-VOC materials, homeowners can significantly reduce the concentration of harmful chemicals in indoor air, creating a healthier living environment for those who live in the home and those who live in the nearby area.

2. Reduced Health Risks 

Minimizing exposure to VOCs can help mitigate health risks associated with indoor air pollution, including respiratory issues, allergic reactions, and long-term health conditions.

Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing health problems can especially benefit from healthier quality air and reduced chemical exposure.

As a homebuilder, using low-VOC materials also protects the long-term health of your employees, who are at a particularly high risk of illness due to repeated and prolonged exposure to these dangerous chemicals.

How High VOC materials Can Impact a Home's Comfort

3. Enhanced Comfort

Non-toxic materials contribute to a more comfortable and pleasant indoor environment, free from the unpleasant odors and off-gassing often associated with VOC-emitting products. After all, it’s hard to enjoy your home when you’re constantly suffering from upper respiratory infections and neurological health problems.

Contractors and builders are better able to do their jobs when they aren’t breathing in irritants while they work.

4. Environmental Sustainability

Many non-toxic and low-VOC materials are also environmentally friendly, produced using sustainable manufacturing processes and renewable resources. This allows you to further reduce your materials’ and products’ impact on both indoor and outdoor environments.

4 Best Practices for Choosing Low VOC Materials

4 Best Practices for Choosing Non-Toxic and low-VOC Materials

1. Look for Certifications

Seek out products certified by reputable organizations such as GREENGUARD, GREENGUARD Gold, Green Seal, or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which certify products for low emissions and environmental sustainability.

Another certification to look for is the EPA’s Safer Choice label. This certification is designed to help commercial buyers quickly identify products that contain safer chemical ingredients without sacrificing quality or performance.

2. Read Product Labels & Warning Labels

Pay attention to product labels and ingredient lists, avoiding materials that contain high levels of VOCs or toxic chemicals. When it comes to home building or construction, the most essential toxic chemicals to avoid include:

  • Acetone: found in furniture polish and wallpaper

  • Benzene: found in crude oil, glues, adhesives, paint stripper, and cigarette smoke

  • Butanal: found in stoves, barbecue grills, and heaters

  • Ethylene glycol: found in polyester fibers and fabrics

  • Formaldehyde: found in molded plastics and finishing products like lacquer

  • Methylene chloride: found in paint removers, aerosol solvents, and chemical fire extinguishers

  • Toluene: found in paints

Some products that contain these and other VOCs will include a warning label on the package. This is a result of Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1968), which requires products sold in California to warn customers about chemical ingredients that could be carcinogenic.

Many times, brands will use the same label for all products rather than create a special label just for the state of California. As a result, you can typically find this label even if you live in Texas or another state. That said, it’s a good idea to always check ingredients regardless of whether you see the Proposition 66 warning.

Benefits of Homebuilders Using Organic Materials in Construction

3. Opt for Natural and Organic Materials

While VOCs may be considered “organic compounds,” that doesn’t mean organic compounds are inherently toxic.

When you choose natural and organic materials such as solid wood, bamboo, cork, and natural stone, you can avoid many of the toxic components naturally found in high-VOC products.

4. Consider Prefinished Materials

Prefinished materials often undergo off-gassing processes in controlled environments before installation, reducing the release of VOCs into indoor air.

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Toxic VOCs

What Should You Do in the Event of VOC Exposure?

In some cases, you may be unable to use non-toxic materials when building or renovating a customer’s home. Perhaps you’re remodeling an older, existing home built with high-VOC materials. Or maybe you aren’t able to source a low-VOC option for an essential aspect of a new home build.

Either way, you can follow these steps to reduce your VOC exposure:

  • Increase ventilation and get plenty of fresh air, particularly when using paint or paint thinners that contain toluene. 

  • Don’t keep open containers of unused paints and similar materials in an area where people could breathe in the fumes.

  • Throw away unused or little-used containers safely, rather than dumping them unsealed in a garbage bin.

  • Use sealant on all exposed surfaces of paneling or furnishings that could contain formaldehyde.

  • Follow integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides.

  • Use household products according to manufacturer's directions, and always keep away from children and pets.

  • Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.

How Homebuilders Can Prioritize Occupant Health During Construction

Build Homes That Prioritize Health and Sustainability, Not Just Aesthetics

Material selection plays a pivotal role in promoting occupant health and well-being in high-performance homes.

By prioritizing non-toxicity, low-VOC emissions, and environmental sustainability in your material choices, you can create homes that not only excel in energy efficiency and comfort but also prioritize the health and happiness of those who inhabit them.

Join us next week as we explore additional strategies for optimizing indoor air quality and health in high-performance homes. And if you are considering building a new home or renovating your existing home, contact Caprock Design + Build to ensure it’s handled the right way. We’ll help bring your vision for your home to life while keeping your family’s safety as our top priority.

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Volatile organic compound materialsToxic chemicalsLow-VOC construction materialsAir qualityHealthy home best practicesHealth impact of VOCs
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