Reducing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

That “new” scent that comes with many new home improvement materials is the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — hazardous chemicals that cause illness and contain known and suspected carcinogens, meaning they cause cancer.

Some items likely to contain VOCs include

  • Synthetic carpets and furniture made of particleboard

  • Household cleansers and air fresheners

  • Paints, solvents, and wood preservatives

These materials give off, or offgas, toxic chemicals, particularly when they’re newly made.

VOCs can include benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment — not to mention cancer.

VOCs are so widespread that it’s difficult to completely eliminate them. You can, however, reduce them in your household by choosing natural products that don’t contain VOCs. Go for wool carpets over synthetic and solid wood furniture that hasn’t been treated with chemical-based preservatives, as particleboard items are.

If you can’t go natural, leave items outside in the sun or in the garage for as long as possible — from a few hours to a couple of days — to let the worst of the offgassing take place before the item ever enters your home. VOC concentration and offgassing tend to be at a maximum when the item is new.

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