Sources of Indoor Air Pollution - Organic Gases
(Volatile Organic Compounds - VOCs)
Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household
products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do
many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products.
Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can
release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree,
when they are stored.
EPA's Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) studies found
levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times
higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were
located in rural or highly industrial areas. Additional TEAM studies
indicate that while people are using products containing organic
chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant
levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after
the activity is completed.
Household products including: paints, paint strippers, and other
solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and
disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and
automotive products; hobby supplies; dry-cleaned clothing.
Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination,
nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some
organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to
cause cancer in humans.
The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies
greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known
health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the
health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure
and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation,
headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are
among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon
after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about
what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in
homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals;
some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in
Levels in Homes
Studies have found that levels of several organics average 2 to 5
times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours
immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels
may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.
Steps to Reduce Exposure
- Use household products according to manufacturer's directions.
- Make sure you provide plenty of fresh air when using these
- Throw away unused or little-used containers safely; buy in
quantities that you will use soon.
- Keep out of reach of children and pets.
- Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.
Follow label instructions carefully.
Potentially hazardous products often have warnings aimed at
reducing exposure of the user. For example, if a label says to use
the product in a well-ventilated area, go outdoors or in areas
equipped with an exhaust fan to use it. Otherwise, open up windows
to provide the maximum amount of outdoor air possible.
Throw away partially full containers of old or unneeded
Because gases can leak even from closed containers, this single
step could help lower concentrations of organic chemicals in your
home. (Be sure that materials you decide to keep are stored not only
in a well-ventilated area but are also safely out of reach of
children.) Do not simply toss these unwanted products in the garbage
can. Find out if your local government or any organization in your
community sponsors special days for the collection of toxic
household wastes. If such days are available, use them to dispose of
the unwanted containers safely. If no such collection days are
available, think about organizing one.
Buy limited quantities.
If you use products only occasionally or seasonally, such as
paints, paint strippers, and kerosene for space heaters or gasoline
for lawn mowers, buy only as much as you will use right away.
Keep exposure to emissions from products containing methylene
chloride to a minimum.
Consumer products that contain methylene chloride include paint
strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints. Methylene
chloride is known to cause cancer in animals. Also, methylene
chloride is converted to carbon monoxide in the body and can cause
symptoms associated with exposure to carbon monoxide. Carefully read
the labels containing health hazard information and cautions on the
proper use of these products. Use products that contain methylene
chloride outdoors when possible; use indoors only if the area is
Keep exposure to benzene to a minimum.
Benzene is a known human carcinogen. The main indoor sources of
this chemical are environmental tobacco smoke, stored fuels and
paint supplies, and automobile emissions in attached garages.
Actions that will reduce benzene exposure include eliminating
smoking within the home, providing for maximum ventilation during
painting, and discarding paint supplies and special fuels that will
not be used immediately.
Keep exposure to perchloroethylene emissions from newly
dry-cleaned materials to a minimum.
Perchloroethylene is the chemical most widely used in dry
cleaning. In laboratory studies, it has been shown to cause cancer
in animals. Recent studies indicate that people breathe low levels
of this chemical both in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored
and as they wear dry-cleaned clothing. Dry cleaners recapture the
perchloroethylene during the dry-cleaning process so they can save
money by re-using it, and they remove more of the chemical during
the pressing and finishing processes. Some dry cleaners, however, do
not remove as much perchloroethylene as possible all of the time.
Taking steps to minimize your exposure to this chemical is prudent.
If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor when you pick them
up, do not accept them until they have been properly dried. If goods
with a chemical odor are returned to you on subsequent visits, try a
different dry cleaner.
[This information originates from the EPA publication, "The
Inside Story - A Guide to Indoor Air Quality."]