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What are VOCs and how to eliminate them

What are VOCs and how to eliminate them

What are VOCs?

VOCs or volatile organic compounds are carbon-containing chemicals that evaporate at room temperature. The range and types of VOCs vary and are emitted as gasses from their solid or liquid states. VOCs may also be absorbed onto airborne particulates or indoor surfaces. These compounds are found in both indoor and outdoor air with concentrations of many VOCs consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.

Essentially, every organic compound is volatile to some degree and at least some of it is present in a gas phase. By the time a substance is heated to its boiling point, all of its molecules will be in the vapor (gas) phase. The EPA considers anything that boils below 250 °C (482 °F) to be a VOC.

Volatility describes how readily a substance vaporizes. Much like a tire or balloon, the more something has vaporized into a gas phase the more pressure it exerts on its surroundings. This associated “vapor pressure” is the measure by which these compounds are present in the air. The higher the vapor pressure of a certain compound, the more molecules of that compound are in the air.

Are VOCs harmful?

Certain compounds can be very volatile but not be toxic and relatively non-volatile compounds can be quite toxic. This much we do know: the higher the vapor pressure of a compound the more likely it is to be harmful because more of it is in the vapor phase making it harder to avoid.

VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which can cause serious short- and long-term adverse health and environmental effects. The health effects can vary depending on the compound, concentration, and duration of exposure. Short-term health effects can include minor eye, nose and throat irritations, as well as nausea and difficulty breathing. Additionally, VOCs have been linked to chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases (asthma),and more. As with most indoor air quality contaminants, high levels over long periods of time have the most impact. By monitoring the air, you know your levels are safe and healthy.

Why are there VOCs in cleaning products?

If a cleaning product has organic chemicals (as most do if they contain surfactants and solvents), it will have VOCs of some type. These products can release organic compounds while you are using them and, to some degree, even when they are stored.

Government regulators have attempted to minimize release of organic chemicals into the gas phase because they tend to participate more readily in forming ozone — a major pollutant that can have serious health and environmental effects. The California Air Resources Board (CARB), for example, categorizes compounds into two groups: High Vapor Pressure VOCs (HVP-VOC), which are regulated, and Low Vapor Pressure VOCs (LVP-VOC), which are not. To be considered a “LVP-VOC” a chemical compound has to contain at least one carbon atom and meet one of the following:
  • Have a vapor pressure below 0.1 mm Hg (about 0.002 pounds per square inch) at room temperature
  • Have more than 12 carbon atoms
  • Have a boiling point greater than 216 °C (421 °F)

While these criteria may seem somewhat arbitrary, they are expansive and probably capture most cleaning ingredients that could cause harm.

From there, CARB sets limits on what percentage of ingredients in a formula can contain HVP-VOC (see here). For example, no more than 0.5% of the formula for an all-purpose spray product can contain HVP-VOCs, bathroom cleaner formulas can contain up to 1%, and glass cleaner formulas can contain up to 3%. These standards are dynamic and these levels are supposed to be (and will likely be) lowered by the State of California.

Because current regulations are focussed on ozone prevention, these regulations do not address the potential toxicity of the VOCs. For example, ethanol is not particularly toxic in the context of cleaning products yet it falls under these regulations whereas methanol, which falls under the same regulation, is much more toxic. And something may theoretically be considered an LVP-VOC — and therefore not regulated by VOC limitations — and yet be quite toxic. Ventilating a room while using these cleaning chemicals is always recommended, as well as, using everything in moderation. 

Do Sensitive Home products contain harmful VOCs?

Never! All of our products are carefully formulated and tested to ensure that they do not produce harmful VOCs and also stay below California Air Resources Board (CARB) health-based limits.

Sensitive Home intentionally designed our products to only use ingredients that are Low Vapor Pressure VOCs (LVP-VOC), with the exception of our unique denatured ethanol (ethyl alcohol), which is limited to the defined levels in our spray cleaners by CARB. But unlike the denatured ethanol used by other cleaners, our specific denatured ethanol does not contain methanol or isopropanol, both of which are petrochemicals and are highly toxic.

While our goal is to avoid the use of any ingredients that emit HVP-VOCs, the use of ethanol was important to help control the thickness of our detergents and to create quick evaporation with some of our surface cleaners where quick drying is important. Rest assured that our specific version of ethanol is an innocuous solvent, is 100% bio-based (not so for most solvents), and does not add any toxic chemicals to the formula. In the end, the purity of our ethanol is similar to the alcohol used in alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, spirits) - but please don’t drink our products!

How can I know if there is a harmful level of VOCs in my space?

Long term indoor air quality monitoring is essential for every home. High levels over long periods of time are the issue. By monitoring long term, you can be alerted when levels are high and make small changes to improve the air you breathe.

As we know, every home is different. Contaminants in the air can vary widely from home to home, and are affected by many factors such as your location, weather, ventilation and more. As we have seen with VOCs, even your cleaning products can have an impact, so it’s important to choose them wisely.

With so many options to choose from, it’s wise to find an air quality monitor that offers a diverse range of sensors, to ensure that you breathe the freshest air. The Airthings View Plus is the most advanced air quality monitor on the market with 7 sensors including radon, particulate matter (PM2.5) and CO2. It’s even WiFi connected and comes with a calm tech display.

Read Patty's story about how she used the Airthings View Plus monitor to  compare the VOCs for Sensitive Home vs her other traditional cleaners.