Acceptable VOC Levels in PPM
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Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gaseous chemicals found in many household products and the outdoor environment. Although the term “VOC” carries a negative connotation, volatile organic compounds aren’t inherently harmful — even flowers give off VOCs, which is what gives them their sweet scent. But there are unacceptable and acceptable VOC levels to keep in mind when it comes to regulating indoor air quality.
Common Household VOCs
In many homes, you’ll find ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, and xylene. Other common VOCs include acetone, bromomethane, styrene, and trichloroethylene.
Levels of certain VOCs are two to five times higher inside homes than outdoors. However, other groups of VOCs — like monoterpenes, which give pine trees their scent — are much higher outdoors.
Sources of VOCs
Everything from carpeting to cosmetics can give off volatile organic compounds. Some common examples of VOC sources in and around the home include:
- Paint, paint strippers, caulk, adhesives, and varnishes
- Composite wood
- Indoor plants
- Air fresheners and cleaning products
- Hobby supplies
Certain activities, like cooking, smoking, and burning incense, also release VOCs. Although many VOCs give off an odor, others do not, and neither is a good indicator of health risk. Instead, scientists use flame ionization detection and photoionization detection to measure acceptable VOC levels in ppm.
Health Effects of Toxic VOCs
Although most VOCs aren’t acutely toxic, they can cause chronic health issues such as nose, eye, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, loss of coordination, skin reactions, fatigue, dizziness, and more. Others are directly toxic and can damage the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system, and some even lead to cancer. Therefore, many people want to minimize the number of VOCs circulating in their homes.
Environmental Effects of VOCs
Outdoors, VOCs from vehicles and industrial processes react with nitrogen oxides to create ozone pollution and fine particulate matter. VOCs play a significant role in the formation of smog, which typically worsens under strong sunlight and stagnant weather conditions. This pollution can slow plants’ growth and increase their susceptibility to insect damage, disease, and harm from severe weather.
Acceptable VOC Levels (ppm)
Just what level of VOCs is acceptable in an indoor environment? Because there are so many different types of VOCs, there isn’t a solid answer to that question. It’s kind of like asking what level of liquid is acceptable in a household — the answer will be very different for water versus nail polish remover.
However, a very broad, basic way to set acceptable indoor VOC levels is to group them together and label them as total volatile organic compounds (TVOC). There is no health standard for non-industrial indoor TVOC levels. However, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) advises people to investigate for potential issues if TVOC levels exceed 500 micrograms per square meter.
It’s impossible to convert that number to parts per million (ppm) without knowing the molar mass of the VOCs in question, since each chemical has a different weight. But there are VOC level charts that can give you a basic idea of acceptable VOC levels in ppm.
Many VOC level charts list the TVOC level of 2.2 ppm to 5.5 ppm as unacceptable. A level of 0.66 ppm to 2.2 ppm is poor, while the target value is zero ppm to 0.065 ppm. These are not official guidelines, but they can give you a basic idea of acceptable VOC levels.
How to Minimize VOC Levels Indoors
First, it’s important to use products that have low VOC concentrations in the first place. Many paints and building supplies have a label indicating they have low VOCs. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using construction supplies indoors.
Composite wood furniture and flooring often contain resins and adhesives that emit VOCs. Choose solid wood, stone, or metal furniture instead. If you plan to buy composite wood furniture or flooring, look for used items that have already had a chance to air out. When adding new furniture or flooring, try to increase the airflow in your house for a day or two afterward.
Look for rugs and carpeting with a Green Label or Green Label Plus certification. Wash new rugs and let them air dry before adding them to your home.
If you’re adding insulation to your home, look for a formaldehyde-free brand, mineral wool insulation or spray foam products.
Avoid using perfumes, air fresheners, and incense indoors. Don’t use a wood-burning stove or oil lamps inside the house. If you do, open windows and doors to improve ventilation.
When embarking on a DIY project, buy only as many supplies as you need to minimize the amount of leftovers. If you’re left with any unused supplies, dispose of them properly rather than leaving them in your house.
Eliminate the use of chemicals that contain VOCs whenever possible. For example, rather than using pesticides, see if sealing around your windows and doors will reduce the number of bugs getting into your home.
Another way to reduce VOC exposure is to never smoke indoors. If you do smoke, only do it outside and with all the doors and windows shut to prevent smoke from blowing in.
Use a carbon air filter to reduce the number of VOCs and particulate matter in your home. A carbon air filter is typically much more effective than a standard HEPA air filter at removing VOCs.
If you can, schedule construction projects during milder weather so you can open the windows and doors while working with volatile chemicals. It’s also helpful to run a fan or air conditioner to maximize air exchange within your home.
There are no official guidelines regulating acceptable VOC levels in ppm within people’s homes. However, some VOC-level charts suggest a TVOC level of 2.2 ppm to 5.5 ppm is unacceptable.
It’s important to remember that many VOCs, such as the chemicals that give plants their signature scent, are harmless. Volatile organic compounds are part of everyday life, but you can minimize their presence in your home by taking a few proactive steps to create a clean, healthy living environment.
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About the author
Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.