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How VOCs and SVOCs Affect Your Indoor Air Quality

Oftentimes, the biggest culprit behind poor indoor air quality is what we can’t even see or detect. 

Did you know that the air you breathe in your home can be up to 70% more polluted than outdoor air? From cooking to pet dander, everyday activities and items can compromise the quality of your home’s air – and, ultimately, your health.

It’s not just what you do in your home that affects the air you breathe either. Oftentimes, the biggest culprit behind poor indoor air quality is what we can’t even see or detect. 

VOCs and SVOCs are two such invisible hazards. While you may have heard these acronyms before, you may not realize how detrimental they can be to the air quality of your home. Understanding how these VOCs and SVOCs enter the house and how to reduce them is key to ensuring healthy indoor air. 

What Are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are compounds that release gases made up of carbon that can be toxic in high levels. These compounds are capable of evaporating under normal indoor conditions, which is why concentrations of VOCs are typically higher indoors. In fact, the EPA notes that VOC concentrations can be up to 10 times higher inside versus outside.

Sources of VOCs

More than 10,000 compounds can be classified as VOCs, and there are numerous products within our homes that expose us to them. Some of the most common items where VOCs are often present include:

  • Air fresheners
  • Wood cleaners
  • Paints
  • Building materials
  • Solvents

Identifying VOCs

Fortunately, VOCs are fairly easy to detect in the air because they typically release strong odors; however, identifying VOC levels in products before they enter the home can be difficult because of inconsistencies in product labeling.

Unfortunately, the requirements for product labels are not entirely standardized. Often, labels will feature broad terms such as “green” or “environmentally friendly.” These terms not only do little to define what’s inside but can be highly misleading, as VOCs can be naturally occurring, organic compounds.

For example, paints and adhesives may be labeled as “low-VOC” or “no VOC” – but that also doesn’t tell the entire story. Many of these labels do not account for all of the VOCs emitted from the product, such as the VOCs incurred during the tinting process.

When it comes to building products and materials, look for labels with GREENGUARD Certification and SCS Indoor Advantage and Indoor Advantage Gold certifications:

Greenguard Gold Certification LabelSCS Indoor Advantage Certification Label

Next, we’ll discuss SVOCs and how to combat both toxins in your home’s environment.

What Are SVOCs and How Are They Different?

Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) have lower volatility levels than VOCs, meaning that they are slightly less toxic than standard VOCs. These compounds also differ from VOCs in that they are not as readily airborne. Instead, SVOCs are more likely to be found in condensed forms on surfaces. Typically, SVOCs sit atop furniture and other surfaces in the home and can remain for long periods of time. 

Sources of SVOCs

Similar to VOCs, SVOCs are common in household items like:

  • Pesticides
  • Fire retardants
  • Cookware
  • Cleaning products
  • Personal care products

Simply eliminating the source of SVOCs does not ensure they will not continue to contaminate the air. Because SVOCs easily attach to surfaces and household dust, they can actually continue to persist for weeks or years within the home. 

Identifying SVOCs

Unlike VOCs, SVOCs are not easily detectable through smell, making them much more difficult to identify within the home. Additionally, SVOCs are released slowly from their sources over extended periods of time through wear and tear at inconsistent rates. 

How VOCs & SVOCs Impact Health

Exposure to high levels of VOCs and SVOCs can have several detrimental effects on your family’s health. In the short term, you may experience dizziness, headaches, nausea, allergies, and eye or sinus irritation. 

Prolonged exposure can have much more severe consequences, including a weakened immune system, lung disease, cancer, and heart disease. Removing VOCs from your home is the best way to combat the short-term irritations, but severe health outcomes are often irreversible.

Bonus Video: Corbett Lunsford explains importance of indoor air quality to your health.

Ways to Reduce VOCs & SVOCs in the Home

Eliminating VOCs and SVOCs from you home entirely is nearly impossible, but there are steps you can take to help reduce levels. 

1. Use natural products

Cleaning products and personal care products are some of the most common household items that increase exposure to VOCs. Some suggested alternatives include making potpourri from herbs and spices instead of air fresheners or using lemon juice with olive oil as a wood polish. 

2. Be mindful of what enters your home

For products with high VOC levels that cannot be replaced with natural alternatives, consider alternative storage options. For example, store paint, pesticides and chemical cleaning supplies in the detached garage or a shed to prevent infiltration into the home.

3. Install a fresh air appliance

The most effective method for reducing VOCs in the home is to install a proper ventilation system in the form of a fresh air appliance, also called a “heat recovery ventilator” (HRV) or an “energy recovery ventilator” (ERV).

Other techniques like air purifiers are designed to remove particles from the air, but there is little data to support the long-term effectiveness of these systems. Fresh air appliances, on the other hand, are effective because they help remove contaminated air from the house while also bringing in clean outdoor air.

There are several ventilation options available but all fresh air appliances will ensure improved indoor air quality.

The HERO series of HRVs and ERVs remove unhealthy air from the home and replace it with fresh outdoor air.

To learn more about how fresh air appliances can improve your home’s indoor air quality, explore our fresh air insights and solutions. 


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