Fresh cut grass, the ocean, a beautiful rose…have you ever found yourself taking a moment to really inhale these incredible smells? The psychological pleasure of that moment – eyes closing, lungs filling, shoulders rising –can feel so expansive that the sensation of wellbeing seems to permeate into our very pores, improving not just our mental wellbeing but our physical wellbeing.
What other smells have a similar effect? Freshly laundered sheets? A new car maybe? How about a scented candle? The happiness I feel slipping between newly laundered sheets feels purely physical. When I walk into a lemon scented home, my perception is that of health, cleanliness and good indoor air quality. But the reality can be very different. It turns out, the air filling my lungs in these situations may be heavily polluted with volatile organic compounds and actually a far cry from healthy.
What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are compounds that easily become vapours or gases at room temperature. They have a low boiling point which means that lots of their molecules evaporate and enter the surrounding air. VOCs are everywhere and include both naturally occurring compounds and human made ones. Common examples are formaldehyde, acetone, methane and benzene.
In fact, most smells are VOCs and a lot of them are vitally important to the environment. For instance, plants use VOCs to defend themselves against insects, to attract pollinators and to communicate with one another.
As far back as the time of Hippocrates, physicians have used Volatile Organic Compounds to their advantage when diagnosing disease. To this day, doctors learn the distinctive smalls indicative of certain diseases: the excessive ketones (leading to the production of the VOC acetone) secreted into the breath of patients with diabetes gives a fruity odour. The first PKU children were recognized because their mothers complained of a musty odour, which was due to the presence of phenylacetate in their urine. Dogs can be used as cancer detectors because they have an extraordinary sense of smell and ability to detect certain VOCs. Human ‘supersmellers’ are capable of detecting Parkinson’s disease.
So, many VOCs are relatively benign, and we humans have evolved to coexist with them and even use them to our advantage, but research is showing that many are not and can cause serious short term and long term health effects. It’s time to make ourselves aware.
Health Effects Of Harmful Volatile Organic Compounds
Health effects of VOCs may include:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
- Skin rashes
- Shortness of breath
They commonly aggravate allergies and are a trigger for asthma. Indeed, experts think that they may contribute to the increasing incidence of asthma. They can, in high concentrations, cause liver and kidney problems and can damage the central nervous system. Some have been shown to cause cancer in animals and are suspected 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 and currently the precise levels of Volatile Organic Compounds that cause harm is unknown as well as the length of time exposed.
Harmful Volatile Organic Compounds in Our Home
Many household products contain harmful VOCs: the fuels to heat our homes, arts and crafts materials, disinfectants, aerosol sprays, paints and varnishes and air fresheners. That lovely clean house smell? In all likelihood, it is a mixture of the many VOCs off gassing from common household cleaning products. And the dry cleaned clothes in your wardrobe? Those too.
Fancy doing a bit of home renovation? Then be aware that if you are using paint stripper that during and for several hours immediately after paint stripping, levels of Volatile Organic Compounds may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels. Most paints release high concentrations of VOCs so don’t be tempted to inhale that new house smell that lingers after application.
Concentrations of many harmful VOCs are higher indoors than outdoors (up to 10 times higher) and the Environmental Protection Agency has shown that while we use these chemicals we can expose ourselves to very high pollutant levels and these levels remain elevated for long after the activity is completed.
Other culprits include furnishings and flooring, building materials and office equipment and materials such as printers and permanent markers. And that new car smell? The one we associate with money, success, achievement? Its actually a combination of 50-60 VOCs off gassing from the plastics, vinyl, and glues.
What Can We Do To Reduce Volatile Organic Compounds And Our Exposure To Them
- Start by simply opening windows when the weather allows, particularly when using products known to off gas.
- If this isn’t possible, consider an appropriate and certified air purifier: your home will be healthier as concentrations of VOCs will immediately decrease.
- Use an exhaust hood when cooking and, stating the obvious here, don’t smoke.
- Crucially, check labels when purchasing. If you want a healthy home, there are products, such as paints and flooring that are certified to produce minimal chemicals and therefore are safer.
- Identify the source of any VOCs in your home and remove if possible. Air fresheners are a very simple example of this. They are not improving the indoor air quality of your home, but rather releasing synthetic fragrances to mask underlying smells.
- Follow the instructions on packaging and meet or exceed any recommended precautions, including correct storage. Preferably store paints, glues, art supplies and other materials in a garage or away from common living areas. Even better, only buy products in quantities you will use soon.
- Allow dry cleaning to air outdoors before wearing, as the chemical involved in the cleaning is known to be carcinogenic animals. If the chemical smell is very strong, ask the dry cleaner about it – it may be that the items are not being treated properly.
And that new car smell? It may soon be a thing of the past as manufacturers move away from using materials that off gas and turn to alternatives such as soy-based foams in the car seats.
So, not all Volatile Organic Compounds are harmful: some are actually imperative to life on this planet, some are useful and some provide pleasure – think the citrusy odour of lemons and limes. However, many are harmful, toxic compounds and can even cause fatal illnesses when we are exposed to them over time. For these reasons we need to take action to protect health and wellbeing and make our homes healthier and our planet a safer place to live.
About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author
Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award-winning author.
Volatile organic compounds, VOCs, healthy home, indoor air quality, off gassing.
References and further reading
Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality, EPA, Click here
Volatile Organic Compounds, American Lung Association, Click here
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Tox Town, Click here
Volatile Organic Compounds in Your Home, Department of Health, Click here
The scent of disease: volatile organic compounds of the human body related to disease and disorder, Click here,
What causes new car smell? Click here
Home, sweet home: how to combat the ‘indoor pollution’ of scented candles, The Guardian, Click here
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