Big Bad VOCs

September 14, 2010

Every day we are bombarded with chemicals leaching from upholstery, carpets, computers, walls, and more. It sounds like a scare tactic–watch your back, or you might be gagged by an invisible deadly gas!–but it’s true. These chemicals are typically referred to as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and while they’re not acutely toxic, long-term exposure can cause liver damage, kidney damage, and cancer. They include formaldehyde (even if the Koch brothers would rather you believe it’s safe), solvents used in paints and coatings, and gasoline.

We’re well aware of VOCs, and we’re determined to decrease our exposure. Unfortunately, we have little control over our work spaces, and we did purchase a new-ish car. But we can focus on our home. During the warmer months, we are able to open windows, so we aren’t trapped in the indoor air. During winter, though, whatever VOCs exist in our home are cycling through our bodies, and many studies show VOCs indoors to be as much as 5 times greater than outdoors. Additionally, newer homes are more tightly sealed, which improves energy efficiency, but it also prevents VOCs from escaping (this is called sick building syndrome).

Here’s what we’ve done to limit our exposure:

VOC-free paint – we are beginning to paint some of our walls, so we purchased Safecoat primer and paints from Straw Sticks & Bricks. Since these paints have no VOCs, they have very little smell, so you won’t get intoxicated from the fumes (just have a beer while you paint to simulate the effect). Safecoat paints are more expensive than conventional paints, but the extra cost is justifiable. If you don’t want to shell out the extra bucks, look for the VOC measurement on cans of conventional paint. The added benefit to painting, for us, is that we’re covering up walls and windows that may contain lead paint. Lead paint is toxic, especially for children, so if you’re scraping or removing old paint, you should wear a face mask and gloves. If your home was painted before 1978, you probably have lead paint, and it’s especially hazardous if it’s in poor condition. Be sure to clean up your work space after dealing with paint that may contain lead.

Organic latex mattress – I’ve been sleeping on the same mattress since I was a teenager, so it was time for a new mattress anyway, but the thought of flame retardants soaking into our bodies 8 hours a night has always been very disconcerting (why are flame retardants required in mattresses anyway? If my house is burning, and the flames get to my mattress, I think I’m in trouble regardless of how well it retards the flames). I researched, and dreamed about, mattresses for quite a while, and we decided to purchase a natural latex mattress. Rubber trees can be tapped for 180 days, and they will heal within a day, so latex is a very sustainable option. It is also VOC-free. Ours is a Savvy Rest mattress made of Dunlop latex and covered with an organic cotton and wool case. Wool is naturally flame resistant, and allows mattresses to pass the government’s safety standard (not to beat a dead horse, but maybe the gov’t needs to worry about hazards more pressing than mattress flammability; ahem, contaminated eggs) You can customize the level of firmness, and your mattress will keep its shape for the next 20-50 years (we’ll also get $100 for referrals, so tell them the eggsandsoups sent you). You’re probably complaining about the superfluous parentheses in this paragraph (I bet my wife is too).

Indoor plants – we’ve been collecting plants ever since we moved into our house. We’re currently at 22, if you count our little jade, and our tiny dwarf pomegranate. We have a chart to tell us when to water, because it’s just too hard to remember. As you know from elementary school science class, plants take in carbon dioxide and put off oxygen. They also clean our indoor air, which is especially helpful in the winter. Here is a list of some of the most effective air-cleaning plants. Some of them are super easy to care for, so you might pick up a couple (or ask a friend to divide a plant or two), and develop your green thumb.

Used furniture – we try to purchase all of our furniture second-hand, because even though it’s probably still off-gassing, it has at least done some of it in another home. The guilty culprits are often the pieces that are stuffed, and since none of us wants a church pew as our couch, we do have to consider more air-friendly options. You can find some organic couches, but your options are limited, and they are quite pricey. We bought our leather couch at Urban Mining–it started at $295, and after some waiting, the price dropped to under $100. It has some wear, but we consider it character. Another benefit to purchasing second-hand is we reduce the amount of items that are adding to the waste stream. Try adding a “worthless” piece of furniture on Freecycle, and you’ll see that there is always somebody who wants what you have.

Some other ideas:

Burn soy candles (they put off less soot than conventional candles)
Step outside to smoke
Use homemade or earth-friendly cleaners
Replace your air filter every three months

Let us know if you have other ideas. Let’s de-VOC our homes!


One Response to “Big Bad VOCs”

  1. Katie Jo said

    If I recall correctly, the flame-retardant requirement arose from a policy decision to prevent fires from originating in mattresses as a result of people smoking in bed. Apparently, such fires were very common in the not-so-distant past. I still hear about it occasionally today. Basically, if you smoke in bed, you’re likely to start a fire in your own mattress, which is likely to create a bigger problem – particularly if you live in attached housing and you endanger others and their stuff.

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