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Minimizing Your Exposure to Potentially-Hazardous VOCs

VOC'c In Room Image-Clean Air Plus

A study suggests that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can potentially harm lung function and may exacerbate symptoms of heart or lung disease in the elderly. Scientists recommend reducing your exposure to VOCs, especially if you already have a cardiovascular condition. There are many ways to reduce such exposure, one of the most effective of which is to get an air purifier that filters out these harmful airborne chemicals.

Indoor Air Quality

People spend most of their time indoors. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that people take 9 out of every 10 breaths indoors, making indoor air quality extremely important. The EPA has also estimated that indoor air is two to three-times more polluted than outdoor air. That pollution includes VOCs from manufactured household materials, concentrations of which are often five times higher indoors than outdoors.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Though VOCs have been around for decades they've become more of a concern in recent years. These compounds are released by manufactured household products. For example, many types of pressed wood contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that releases chemical fumes into the air for years. This is called off-gassing and it can be odorless and undetectable by your senses. Its hidden nature is what makes it so potentially harmful. Paints, treated wood, varnishes, air fresheners, mattresses, box springs, sheets, even the glue used in carpeting, all of it likely contains formaldehyde or similar chemical compounds. It's practically everywhere and problematic for those who are sensitive or have cardiovascular conditions.

Effects of VOCs

Symptoms of exposure to VOCs in the short term include irritation of the eye, nose, and throat, as well as headaches, coughing, dizziness, skin rashes, nausea, nosebleeds, and even vomiting. Long-term effects include liver damage, kidney damage, and nervous system damage. That's in addition to the study suggesting VOCs exacerbate cardiovascular conditions in the elderly.

New Study Findings

South Korean researchers published a study several years ago in the European Respiratory Journal concluding that exposure to everyday levels of VOCs may harm the elderly.

In that study, they tested the lung function of 161 elderly subjects with no history of VOC exposure at work. They measured the amount of air they inhaled with each breath as well as the speed with which the air flowed. Urine samples were tested for byproducts of four kinds of VOCs as well as for levels of oxidative stress. Each subject was tested up to 8 times on different days. The researchers found a correlation between two VOC byproducts, toluene and xylene, and decreased lung function. People who had byproducts in the 90th percentile experienced a 1% decrease in the amount of air they could exhale in one second when compared with people who had byproducts in the 10th percentile. Researcher Dr. Yun-Chul Hong of the Seoul National University College of Medicine stated, "this amount of reduction could exacerbate existing lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or give additional burden to existing heart disease." While they are correlated, the researchers were careful to point out that this doesn't prove VOCs cause decreased lung function, so more studies are needed. They also discovered a potential way that VOCs might indirectly harm lung function – through oxidative stress. Those with higher levels of VOCs also had higher numbers of oxidative-stress markers. An increase in oxidative-stress markers is related to decreased lung function.

Reduce Exposure with Air Purifiers

If you're concerned about the effects of VOCs, the best thing to do is limit your VOC exposure. Given that so many products include VOCs, one broad way to reduce exposure is to get an air purifier specially designed for VOC removal.

The air purifier has to contain an activated carbon filter to effectively capture noxious chemical fumes, VOCs and odors.  Select a model that includes a HEPA filter and you will remove 99.97% of airborne particles of size 0.3 microns and above along with the VOC removal.

Using the proper air purifier will reduce exposure for those who can't afford to replace carpeting, paint, furniture, and beds. Going forward, however, you should be aware of where VOCs lurk and alternative VOC-free options.

If you're repainting your house, make sure to get VOC-free paint. If you're getting a new table or new shelving in the kitchen, get formaldehyde-free, untreated wood. If you're getting rid of old carpet, considering installing natural bamboo in its place.

Small, incremental steps can help address a larger problem and when paired with a quality air purifier, offer an effective way of reducing exposure on several fronts.


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  • Administration Staff