Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos, and Lead

what are vocs - empty room

The most common airborne pollutants associated with building material include asbestos, lead, and VOCs. Many people don’t realize that asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that exists in rock and soil. Because of its strength and its high resistance to heat, it has been used in a variety of building materials for insulation and as a fire retardant. When it is disturbed by cutting, sanding, or drilling, the fibers can become transiently airborne and inhaled. These tiny needle-like fibrils get trapped in the lungs, where they cause inflammation. The cilia and mucous in the lung are unable to clear away the fibrils. Chronic exposure can lead to asbestosis, a disease characterized by lung scarring. The lining of the lung (the pleura) develops sheet-like regions of calcification, called pleural plaques, characteristic of asbestos-related disease. The lung and pleura both become at risk for cancer in the forms of lung carcinoma and mesothelioma. If you suspect there are products containing asbestos in your home, have them inspected and removed by a trained contractor. Under no circumstance should you attempt to remove asbestos yourself, unless you are certified to do so.

Lead was used for many years in the production of paint. When lead paint deteriorates or is removed improperly, the lead dust created can then be inhaled or ingested. Lead toxicity can damage the brain, spinal cord, kidneys, and blood cells. If children are exposed to lead, they can suffer physical and mental delays as well as behavioral problems. As mentioned earlier, lead can also be emitted by some candles. If your home was built before 1978 and there is original paint on the walls, even if the paint is beneath wallpaper, don’t remove the paint until you have it tested for lead. If the paint does contain lead, hire a trained professional to remove the paint. If the paint is in good condition, don’t worry about the lead until it begins to deteriorate or until you want to remove it. If you or your partner work in an industry with lead products, make sure dusty clothes are changed before entering the home. Wash lead-tainted clothes separately from all other laundry. If your occupation exposes you to lead, eating a diet rich in calcium, phosphorus, and iron will help reduce lead absorption.

Most of us are continually exposed to VOCs that emanate from building materials in the home. Any carbon-containing compound that exists as a gas at room temperature is a VOC. There are thousands of VOCs used in the production of building materials and pretty much any other fabricated item you might buy, some of which are listed in Table 2. Many VOCs are innocuous, but others are known carcinogens.

Household consumer products containing VOCs:
– Paints and lacquers
– Paint strippers
– Paper towels
– Carbonless copy paper
– Grocery bags
– Pesticides
– Copier and printer inks
– Permanent markers
– Correction fluids
– Cleaning supplies, including dish detergents and fabric softeners
– Building furnishings, including carpets and vinyl flooring
– Craft materials, including glues and adhesive
– Clothing and dry-cleaning materials

Formaldehyde, one of the most common VOCs, is colorless, with a strong odor. It is used in the resins that make up composite wood products, including hardwood plywood, particleboard, and medium- density fiberboard. Although the emission of formaldehyde from building materials has been decreasing, formaldehyde concentrations in ambient indoor air have been continuously increasing. This is likely due to its ubiquitous presence in household products.

Health consequences of formaldehyde depend on the duration of exposure and the concentration of the gas. Acute exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, coughing, and nausea, while chronic exposure has been associated with cancer, particularly nasopharyngeal carcinoma (throat cancer). As with all VOCs, formaldehyde is a gas at room temperature, and slowly emanates from the products it is mixed into over time, a process referred to as off-gassing. As the air temperature or humidity in the house increases, the rate of off-gassing accelerates.

Although the EPA has set regulations to limit the concentration of formaldehyde in each product, there is no way to control the total amount of formaldehyde a homeowner may be exposed to. Indoor concentrations can rise to unhealthy levels when windows are closed and the heat is turned on. Mobile homes have been shown to off-gas particularly high levels of formaldehyde, especially in the wintertime.

Other common VOCs found in building materials and household goods include methylene chloride, xylene, toluene, and benzene. Like formaldehyde, benzene is a known carcinogen which can damage the bone marrow and cause leukemia.

All materials containing VOCs off-gas continuously. That luxurious new carpet you may have recently purchased is off-gassing, as is the new cabinetry in your kitchen and the fresh new paint applied to your walls. To drive home this point, I’d like to share a quick personal story.

A year ago, I decided to paint my living room with a faux plastering technique I had seen advertised at a local paint store. I purchased the needed supplies and went to work. The base coat went on smoothly, but the plastering layer required a more laborious technique of smearing arcs of dyed plaster material to the freshly painted wall. The instructions said to use the product in a well- ventilated area, so I left the overhead fan on continuously and the windows wide open. The process took me three days to complete, and at the end of the third day, I developed a nosebleed. This was unusual for me, as it was the middle of spring and I had only experienced nosebleeds in the winter when the air is dry for prolonged periods of time. The bleeding stopped without too much effort, but that night, I was awakened by another nosebleed. I applied pressure and it eventually stopped. Over the next two days, I experienced nosebleeds that became progressively more severe, coming out of not only one, but both nostrils simultaneously. I ended up at the emergency room of a local hospital where the staff packed my nose to stop the bleeding. Following this, the physician looked up both nostrils with a scope. He didn’t see much but irritation. He blindly cauterized several areas in the back of my nose and sent me home, prescribing a follow-up appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I told him that I had just painted a room in my house, but he looked at me skeptically, as if I had given him a piece of history with no relevance. This ER physician, like most doctors, had no idea about the damaging effect that VOCs can have on nasal mucosa. The nosebleeds subsided after a few days and I have not had another one since.

A nosebleed is one physiological effect you can experience from the inhalation of VOCs. Many others are less obvious but can be much more dangerous.

If you are going to use a product such as a paint, plaster, adhesive, or solvent in your home, make sure to use the product in a well-ventilated area. This means to preferably use these products outdoors or in areas with an exhaust fan to the outdoors. If the product needs to be used indoors, as was the case with my paint, open up as many windows as possible and place a large fan in the room to provide as much outdoor air infiltration as possible. Off-gassing will continue for some time after a product has been applied and continued air ventilation is needed for at least a couple of weeks until the VOC levels have dropped sufficiently. Given the different chemicals in each brand of paint and the differing ambient conditions in each individual room, it is impossible to recommend a specific time frame for this. I would recommend ventilating a newly painted room for two or three weeks after painting. In addition, try to purchase paint that is designed to emit a lower concentration of VOCs. Your paint supplier should be able to help guide you to the best brands.

Once you are finished using a product that contains VOCs, move the container outside or into the garage, as these containers continue to leak gases. Please do not put empty containers into a garbage pail in your home to sit until garbage day. Toxic and hazardous household wastes need to be discarded responsibly. Ask your local government for proper disposal procedures.

What are VOCs? Digging Deeper

There are many other sources of VOCs in your home. The more you are aware of, the more you may be able to remove. These may be in your closets, laundry rooms, or bathrooms. Go around your home and sniff. If your sense of smell is functioning, you will find many of these items on your own.

Do you have a mothball closet or use mothballs to protect your clothes? We had one in our house when I was a kid and it was down in the basement, away from the commonly used living areas. Clothing moths can be very destructive. There are many ways to prevent and rid your home of clothing moths, but using moth balls is one of the least desirable. The chemical paradichlorobenzene is a common active ingredient in moth repellents and is known to cause cancer in animals, but human effects are unclear. It has been suggested that this chemical may even be associated with the development and progression of multiple sclerosis. Instead of creating a mothball closet, use a cedar chest or build a cedar closet. Alternatively, clothing bags and air-tight containers will seal your clothing and protect it from moths. Pheromone traps are also available for the closet. These are different than the ones used for pantry moths – make sure you use the correct trap.

Dry cleaning will rid clothing of moth larvae and eggs and is a preferable method for cleaning many delicate fabrics. But among the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process is perchloroethylene, a potent VOC that has also been shown to cause tissue damage and cancer in animals. Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been associated with occupational exposure to trichloroethylene, a related compound. If your clothing is damp or has a chemical smell when you pick it up from the dry cleaner, you should leave the clothing at the store and tell them that they need to completely dry the clothing before you will take it home. Damp clothes from the dry cleaner will off-gas and fill your bedroom closets with toxic gas.

Dryer sheets and scented detergents contain VOCs that temporarily adhere to your clothing. There are less toxic alternatives to these fragrant products. If you want to make your clothes static-free, place a pair of clean old sneakers or some other type of unscented “laundry ball” into the dryer to reduce static cling. You can also create lavender packs or other dryer bags filled with herbs and essential oils that can make your clothing smell fragrant without using synthetic VOCs.

The same chemical used in moth repellents, paradichlorobenzene, is also used in many air fresheners and deodorizers. If you use these products in your home, it would be a terrific goal if you could slowly wean yourself from them. Proper ventilation and household cleanliness will prevent most unpleasant odors in the home without the need for chemical air fresheners. As you take steps to reduce the particulates in your air and reduce your home’s VOC concentration, you will find that most odors will dissipate. If you do still have an odor problem, you should go on a search for mold.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health