VOCs in the Suburbs

What makes air unhealthy? Air pollutants like radon, ozone, CO2, VOCs, Carbon monoxide, and lead play a factor. Exposure to pollutants may cause irritations, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue and in higher concentrations, damage to organs.

The art community is drawing attention to environmental issues such as the sustainable design-focused art projects at the Smithsonian. Conservation and recycling solutions are being studied. For example, soot a byproduct of burning of fossil fuels, is used as a dye to make blank ink in our pens and printers (1).

Pollution Sources?

When you picture pollution do you imagine a truck spewing out black smoke or a smoke stack at an industrial facility? Believe it or not ‘concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher indoors than typical outdoor concentrations’ (3).

VOCs Hide Inside

One of these pollutants are VOCs. Indoor VOCs may generally be defined as all organic chemical compounds that can volatize under normal indoor atmospheric conditions of temperature and pressure (1). These gases are emitted from a wide range of solid or liquid chemicals. These organic chemicals are found in household products such as paints, sealants, flooring, cleaners, tobacco smoke, air fresheners, even cosmetics (2)! Between 2001 and 2009, certain drywall imported from China and used in residential construction in the US, was found to off-gas VOCs and sulfurous gases (4).

Cleaning Products VOC.png

How are VOCs measured?

The most common VOCs are formaldehyde, benzene and perchloroethylene from dry-cleaned materials. Measuring the VOCs in the home can be challenging because different compounds release different types of VOCs and there is not a ‘catch-all’ measuring tool. There are companies who perform air checks and in the results they inform you on which VOCs were tested, how they were tested and display results. Homeowners can also purchase air quality monitoring tools to take measurements themselves and ship an air sample to a lab.

Fight Back

In order to decrease VOC exposure in the home, always read chemical product labels and follow directions for safe use. Limit time spent using the product and dispose of product properly. “Keeping buildings smoke free as tobacco smoke contains VOCs among other carcinogens (2).”

Ventilation is key, changing the air inside the home or building by opening windows or running the fan when using the products. Taking breaks while painting or cleaning in a closed space is a safe practice.

The innovators behind AIR-INK use recycled soot, it is collected from industries who are already burning fossil fuels as a way of reducing their waste. A filtration device collects the soot and prevents it from ending up in a landfill. Each AIR-INK marker is equivalent to approximately 45 minutes of diesel car pollution (1).

Regulatory Applicability

There are no enforceable standards set for VOCs in non-industrial setting such as residences (3). In industrial setting there is regulation through state and federal agencies that vary from GHG, Tier II and other emission maintenance programs that regulate levels of VOCs.

It is important to note that information labels on products that claim to be ‘green’ or ‘low VOC’ may be only taking into account certain compounds. This is due to a lack of standardization between products (3). Everyone will also have different sensitivities to different levels of exposure. So always practice caution when using chemicals in the home and always ventilate the area after use.

Latitudes Environmental is a full-service consulting firm, practicing in indoor air quality and industrial hygiene.


 1. This Ink is Made From Air Pollution by Rachael Lallensack https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/ink-made-air-pollution-180972212/

2. VOC – American Lung Association https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/indoor/indoor-air-pollutants/volatile-organic-compounds.html

3. VOC impact on Indoor Air Quality https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

4. About Chinese Drywall, National Center of Healthy Housing https://nchh.org/information-and-evidence/learn-about-healthy-housing/ask-nchh/about-chinese-drywall/

David Lewis