Houseplans Blog

Understanding Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Understanding Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
The no-VOC paints used in this handsome living room are by Yolo
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a group of chemicals that easily evaporate (sublimate) at room temperature and can lead to human health problems. Most people can smell VOCs in new paint and other products but some materials that have no smell also off-gas VOCs and are dangerous. Leukemia, lymphoma, and a number of other diseases can increase through prolonged exposure of VOCs. VOCs are also linked to increases in asthma, pulmonary infections, and allergies. The EPA has found concentrations of VOCs in indoor air to be 2 to 5 times greater than in outdoor air. During some construction activities, such as painting, VOCs are emitted at up to 1,000 times the rate of the outside air. Maximum values for VOC emissions are published by the EPA, the California Department of Public Health, and other agencies. Many building products emit VOCs. Products containing formaldehyde all give off VOCs. This includes such products as engineered doors, engineered floors, plywood, particle board, OSB and others. Solvent-based products and many glues emit VOCs as they dry. We will look at each product in turn and see what choices are available to minimize VOC off-gassing.
Paints, coatings, and related products are major sources of Volatile Organic Compounds.
As paint dries, indoor VOC levels are often 10 times higher than outdoor levels.  VOCs and can be as much as 1000 higher immediately after painting. Most paint emits 1/2 of their VOCs during the first year after painting and the rest over the next several years. Oil-based  paints have high VOC content while water-based (latex) paints have low or no VOCs. Low VOC Paint is now widely available and is sold by most major paint manufacturers. Look for paint that carries the Green Seal. It is guaranteed to meet precise environmental standards. Another alternative is milk based paint. It contains few, if any, harmful ingredients. The photo at the top of this post shows a handsomely hued interior using paints from Yolo Colorhouse, which emit no toxic fumes or VOCs (photo courtesy Yolo Colorhouse). 

Many building materials slowly emit formaldehyde which off-gasses VOCs. High humidity and high temperatures increase the rate that formaldehyde is released. There are two types of formaldehyde, PF  Phenol Formaldehyde and UF Urea Formaldehyde. Phenol formaldehyde offgasses significantly less than Urea Formadehyde 

Engineered Floors were initially glued together with UF Urea Formaldehyde Adhesive. Manufacturers are now switching over to Phenol Formaldehyde Adhesive (PF), as well as No Added Formaldehyde Adhesives (NAF).  Be sure to check which adhesive is being used when shopping for flooring. The Urea-Formaldehyde adhesive off-gasses the most VOCs, the Phenol Formaldehyde much less and some brands have little to no formaldehyde.  Be sure to get engineered and hardwood floors that are pre-finished. The finish itself contains VOCs that are emitted while drying. It is better that this is done in the factory than in your home.
Plywood and Particle Board
Particle board is similar to plywood but is cheaper to produce as it is composed of small chips of wood held together with a resin.  Unfortunately the resin usually contains UF Urea Formaldehyle.   Particle Board being less costly than plywood is often found in cabinets and shelving.
Plywood is also glued together with UF Urea Formaldehyde.  Since this is such a common building material, it is important to get this one right.
Fortunately, there is an alternative plywood available with a Soy based resin used as a non-formaldehyde adhesive.  It is available at many home centers.
Oriented Strand Board (OSB)
This product is another plywood substitute used in modern construction. It is cheaper to produce than plywood but often contains UF Urea Formaldehyde. There are, however, manufacturers that make PF Phenol Formaldehyde based OSB. Look for manufacturers that make low or low VOC


Drywall often contains VOCs. There is a very positive development here, however. CertainTeed makes a drywall that they claim actually cleans the air of formaldehyde. The AirRenew® brand is the industry’s first formaldehyde-absorbing technology which actively removes formaldehyde from the air. It is converted into a safe, inert compound. This drywall absorbs VOCs for up to 75 years.

Fiberglass insulation is made by spinning liquid glass to create fibers. A binder, PF Phenol Formaldehyde is added to the fiberglass to hold all of the fibers together.
 Natural alternatives to fiberglass insulation include: Cotton Bat; Mineral Wool; Soy-Based Foam.

Vinyl and synthetic carpets are high in VOCs. Instead, look for natural fibers such as wool, sisal and cotton. VOCs come not only from the carpet itself, but also from the adhesives and padding installed with the carpet. The regular cleaning of carpets helps reduce VOCs and indoor pollutants. When installing new carpet, make sure to ventilate the area for about a week or until the odor dissipates. Other Construction Products with high VOCs include: plasters, caulks. sealants, adhesives, grout and grout sealers. Look for VOC Compliant or better yet, Low VOC on each label.

In addition to reducing your exposure to VOCs through your choice of construction materials, you can increase the ventilation in your home by way of Hepa Filters and more simply by just opening windows. Houseplants also absorb and reduce VOCs. See: 

Understanding Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Inspiration

All Article Tags

Promo Codes