Consumer products are steadily becoming a severe air pollution-related health threat. The specific pollutants are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are gases emitted from various solids and liquids.
Automobiles using gasoline and factories burning fossil fuels release massive amounts of VOCs into the atmosphere. This is incredibly dangerous because VOCs react with other chemicals in the air to produce tropospheric ozone (not the protective kind in the ozone layer) and smog. Both pollutants are damaging to human health, causing a myriad of respiratory complications and cardiovascular diseases.
However, according to recent research, consumer products may emit equivalent amounts or even higher concentrations of VOCs than these outdoor sources.
In fact, researchers found VOC exposure to be up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors.
This does make sense considering people spend an abundance of time in their homes. Unfortunately, VOCs come with their own health risks, even without reacting with other air pollutants outside. These gases cause eye and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, skin rashes, dizziness, liver and kidney damage, and several types of cancer.
The huge problem is.. a vast majority of consumer products emit VOCs.
A non-exhaustive list of products are:
- Paints and solvents
- Disinfectants, cleaning sprays, and repellants
- Air fresheners
- Perfumes and nail polish remover
- Dry-cleaned clothes
- Tobacco smoke
- Office equipment (copiers, printers, etc.)
- Glues and adhesives
So, yes, there are a lot of things releasing these harmful VOCs.
What’s Going On Here?
You’re probably wondering why this problem has not been more readily addressed, considering the health consequences and the fact that pretty much everyone uses at least a few of these products daily.
Well, manufacturers still aren’t even required to label all VOCs on product descriptions.
Most of the time this is because the chemicals are components of the products’ “fragrance”. In a study on VOC ingredients in consumer products, researchers found that less than 3% of VOCs were included on the product labels or mentioned within safety guidelines. Consumers could be exposed to considerably higher concentrations than they would ever even know.
This also makes it significantly more difficult for scientists to investigate this problem. Without proper labeling, it is challenging for researchers to discern which chemicals are responsible for which adverse human health reactions and how to mitigate them.
Even the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges there is a lack of standardization in categorizing and regulating VOCs, leading to incorrect labels and insufficient product warnings.
What Can We Do About This?
Luckily, there are some government initiatives seeking to limit VOCs and regulate these chemicals better. California Air Resources Board (CARB) is working to increase monitoring stringency of VOCs and other harmful pollutants found in consumer products.
“CARB’s Consumer Products Program aims to reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic air contaminants (TACs), and greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are emitted from the use of chemically formulated consumer products, including detergents, cleaning compounds, polishes, floor finishes, disinfectants, and sanitizers.” — California Air Resources Board
Programs like this are amazing first steps in protecting human health and preserving indoor and outdoor air quality. With stricter regulations, companies will be obligated to properly label all products and provide customers with more comprehensive and accurate safety procedures.
To reduce your current risk of high VOC exposure and work on improving the indoor air quality of your home, there are some precautions you can consider:
- Increase airflow throughout the home, including opening doors and windows, especially when using these products
- Buy most of the products listed above in quantities you will use right away — try not to store open paints and aerosols for long time periods inside of your home
- Follow EPA’s “Safer Choice” guidelines when buying cleaning products to identify alternative, approved sanitizing agents
- Place more plants inside of your home
- Try alternative insect-control techniques, such as integrated pest management, instead of pesticides
- Reduce tobacco use
- Never leave your car running in the garage
- Minimize how often you dry clean your clothes
- Follow directions on the labels extremely closely — if the product says to leave the home after use, exit the household for the necessary amount of time to allow for proper ventilation