Understanding VOC’s & How to Create a Healthy Home

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Indoor air quality is something you don’t often consider when planning a home, but it is so very important. In particular, when renovating or building a home, the kinds of materials you use such as paint, oils and glues, are very important to your health. It is therefore recommended that you do consider the quality of your air – in particular the impact of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Understanding what they are and why you need to be concerned will help in creating an overall more healthy home. This is not just when renovating, but in every day use of all sorts of chemicals and products that can be bad for your health.

So what are VOC’s?

VOC’s are chemicals containing carbon that evaporate into the atmosphere at room temperature. They often have an odour, and can be present in a wide range of household products, construction materials and new furnishings. Household products that contain VOC’s include paints, varnishes, adhesives, synthetic fabrics, cleaning agents, scents and sprays. VOC’s can also occur as a result of activities such as smoking. (from yourhome.gov.au)

Look for products that are marked as having low or no VOC’s. The higher the VOC level the higher the toxicity. Paints are a perfect example of a product that can have high levels of VOC’s but it is very easy to find low or non VOC paints. Furniture also has levels of VOC’s. Choosing products with minimal VOC’s helps to improve indoor air quality which is essential in having a greener, healthier home. Imagine that new house smell – or even a newly painted room – that smell is the chemicals that are in things such as your paints, your carpets, your joinery – the glues, dyes etc You can get products without VOC’s in everything from paint to kitchen benches.

The problem with VOC’s in building products or other indoor items is that they gradually find their way to the surface and ‘offgas’, into the surrounding air. Most offgassing occurs when products are new and/or freshly installed and then this gradually diminishes significantly over time.
However, lots of VOC’s have not been studied in detail, so not much is known about the health hazards when they mix with each other, and with other pollutants.  This means we don’t necessarily know what, if any, impact they may have on our health and wellbeing. The level of VOC’s in your home can vary greatly, not only over time but also from room to room, especially if you are adding new products that contain VOC’s on a regular basis.

How to reduce VOC’s

  • Stop or reduce the use of products that contain VOC’s
  • If you have to use that particular product, make sure you have as much ventilation as possible while using it
  • Open doors and windows whenever possible and practicable

Everyday examples of these kinds of products with VOC’s include:

  • Air fresheners
  • Cleaning sprays
  • Polishes
  • Spray deodorants and other toiletries

These are major sources of VOC’s and it is best that you do not use these too much in areas that are not well ventilated.

Building products are another source of VOC’s

When selecting building products:

  • Look for building products that are pre-dried in the factory or are ‘quick-drying’
  • Use surface coating products that are water based or classed as containing zero or low levels of VOCs
  • Seek advice from the supplier or manufacturer, particularly if the information displayed on the container is not clear — ask for the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)
  • Ensure rooms are fully ventilated when adding new furnishings or resurfacing walls and floors, until the odour reduces considerably or disappears

Four steps to better air quality:

  1. Eliminate – Identify the source of air problems and wherever possible eliminate through better product selection and design.
  2. Ventilate – If too little fresh air enters a home, pollutants can accumulate to levels that can pose health and comfort problems.
  3. Separate – Separate problem materials from occupants by using air barriers or sealers such as coatings.
  4. Absorb – Indoor plants can be used to the quality of the indoor environment, as well as for their beauty

Here are some things to consider when building or renovating your home

How well does the design of the building utilise natural ventilation?
A well designed home will look at the proper orientation of the building, to help capture breezes and convection currents, which draw stale air out and fresher air in. If you need to have your windows closed for security or noise reasons, you can have fixed wall vents installed to ensure adequate ventilation. It is important to try and have a balance between the need to introduce fresh air, maintaining comfortable room temperatures, and acceptable energy conservation, as too many air leaks can also be negative. Speak with a qualified Architect or Designer before you begin your build.

How well does the home reduce moisture?
If you are building a brick home, a damp-proof course is needed to stop moisture from the ground rising up into the wall. High and prolonged periods of humidity can increase in moisture within the building. Avoid mould growth in all homes by lessening moisture levels. This can be trickier in Winter and high humidity environments, but again do some research and speak with an expert who can advise the best way to reduce moisture in your home.

Consider furniture choices
A lot of mainstream, modern furniture is made wholly or partly from plywood, particleboard or medium-density fibreboard (MDF). These are cheaper to make and buy, but the resins in these products can off-gas formaldehyde for many years. They also do not last and end up in landfill much quicker than quality made items using materials such as FSC and recycled timbers. Australian manufacturers produce low-emission products and these are marked low formaldehyde emission LFE (E1) or LFE (E0). Their emissions are certified through product quality assurance programs. Some imported products may have high emission levels – always check the origin and emission class with your retailer. Better still, seek out designers and furniture makers who design with eco friendly and sustainable products and/or recycled timbers and other materials.

Soft furnishings also matter
Many soft furnishings contain foams or other synthetic materials. These can release various unhealthy gases over time. Ask suppliers for details about the chemicals used in the product, particularly VOC’s, and their advice on possible health effects. Try to find products with low-emission labels. If you look for materials such as linen, organic cottons, hemp, and recycled materials, and the use of eco friendly inks – you have more chances of a healthier product.

Do you really need that toilet spray?
Many liquid cleaning products, spray personal hygiene products, air fresheners and perfumed toiletries contain VOC’s. Some people’s health rapidly deteriorates after smelling or coming into contact with one or more of these types of product, even for just a few seconds. Particularly if you have sensitivities, reducing contact with these is very important. We have become saturated with scents in our homes. Sometimes an open window is the best way to introduce a pleasant atmosphere. Or a bunch of flowers from the garden. I like to use lightly scented natural candles, or natural pump style fragrances for a dash of scent in the air.

Does the paint you intend to remove contain lead?
Lead paint is most likely to be found in homes built before 1970. Paints containing up to 50 per cent lead were often used on the inside and outside of houses built before 1950. Up to the late 1960s paint with more than 1 per cent lead was still being used. Regulations have reduced the levels of lead in paint to 0.1 per cent. Commercial home test kits are available from some hardware stores. For more reliable results, use the services of an analytical laboratory. If you do find lead in or around your home, phone your state or territory public health unit for advice.

Make sure you consider precautions when sanding back paint
If you are undergoing renovations like we are, you will know that there is a lot of dust! When you sand back existing paint on furniture, floors or other areas of your home, this creates a lot of fine particles. This is a potential health risk, both when the particles are in the air (where they can be inhaled) and when they settle on a surface (where children or pets may swallow them). The risk increases if the paint contains more than very small amounts of lead or other metals. A good tradie will know how to capture the dust before it travels any distance through or into your home, and should take care in cleaning up residues. Without appropriate equipment, vacuuming of lead paint dust is not recommended. In any case, lead or not, wearing a dust mask is the sensible way to go when renovating yourself.
(much of the advice in this post with reference from yourhome.gov.au)

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