Life Home What are VOCs and do I need to avoid them?
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What are VOCs and do I need to avoid them?

Simply choosing the right flooring or wall paint can reduce you and your family's risk of exposure. Photo: Getty
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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemical compounds found in building products, furnishings and paints that can evaporate (or off-gas) into the surrounding environment at room temperature.

Unfortunately, our houses are full of them. Let’s take a closer look at what VOCs are, where they might be lurking in your home, and how to banish them for a healthier, cleaner living environment.

What are VOCs?

Volatile Organic Compounds – or VOCs – vary in toxicity, and carcinogenic compounds such as formaldehyde and benzene are the most concerning.

But the main issue is that they can continue to seep out of the walls, kitchen cabinets and floors for many months, or even years, following installation. And a cocktail of these toxic vapours can rapidly accumulate in poorly ventilated areas.

The health impacts of exposure to VOCs vary according to the chemical emitted, and the severity and duration of exposure. VOCs are often to blame for complaints such as headaches, eye and nose irritation, respiratory issues, fatigue, poor concentration and allergic reactions. Prolonged exposure has also been implicated in the development of more serious illnesses.

The good news, however, is that as awareness of the effects of VOCs has grown, manufacturers have started developing products that generate fewer toxic emissions. When building and decorating, it’s becoming easier to make choices that will create healthier environments for ourselves and our families. We’ve identified some easy, practical VOC-busting decorating options.

Low-VOC flooring options

If you’re serious about reducing VOC emissions in your home, flooring is a great place to start – mainly because there’s so much of it. New carpeting, which is often treated with flame retardants, stain repellents and antimicrobial agents, can release high levels of VOCs for several days after installation, and low levels for months or years to come. Synthetic backing, underlays and adhesives used during installation are also VOC culprits.

To reduce the chemical load, choose a woollen carpet with a natural-fibre backing. Wool has natural flame- and stain-resistant properties, is luxurious underfoot, and is a renewable resource. And don’t forget to ask your supplier for a low-VOC underlay. When your new carpet is installed, try to stay out of the room for a few days and ensure the area is well ventilated to help flush the fumes away.

Sisal, which is a renewable, natural, and completely VOC-free carpeting option, has been installed in the living room of this Palm Beach home. Sisal is so hardy that it’s grown with minimal pesticides – making it a great chemical-free option for your interiors. It’s as durable as it is beautiful, and a great option for styling high-traffic living areas without compromising the air quality of the family home.

Laminated floors and floating floors are typically glued together with formaldehyde-based adhesives that can emit VOCs, so if you’re concerned about off-gassing, choose solid timber floorboards and seal them with a non-toxic, water-based polyurethane that’s clearly labelled as low-VOC. An even better option is to enhance timber’s natural beauty with a solvent-free oil or plant-based hardwax oil, which is comprised of several natural waxes and oils and dries to a hard, durable finish.

This Melbourne home was designed by David Saunders of S2 Design and features recycled, plantation-grown timber and zero-VOC finishes throughout. Saunders used non-toxic oils to bring lustre to the timber floors and ceiling joinery.

For an easy, cost-effective and low-fuss floor finish that optimises air quality, why not try VOC-free floor paint? This is a particularly good option in playrooms, where children spend lots of time sitting or lying on the floor playing with their toys.

The bright-blue floor plays a starring role in this loft play space. The look was achieved by painting the sub-floor material with Ecos VOC-free paint in ‘Gualala’. In Australia, try Porter’s Paints or Dulux for a similar product.

Healthy kitchens

Modern kitchen cabinets are manufactured from a composite timber product called MDF (medium density fibreboard), which is made by binding wood fibres together with – you guessed it – urea-formaldehyde resin. Most MDF sold is rated E1, which means it contains the maximum amount of formaldehyde permitted by Australian Standards. If you’re building or renovating a kitchen, consider asking your cabinetmaker to use E0 MDF instead, which contains half the formaldehyde of the E1 panels.

Victorian architect Ande Bunbury designs environmentally sensitive buildings that are both beautiful to look at and to live in. After sighting international research linking good indoor air quality with improved recovery rates in hospitals – and learning rates in schools – Bunbury chooses locally sourced materials with low toxicity for all her projects. In this Melbourne terrace, all the kitchen joinery is made from E0 low-formaldehyde MDF.

Deck the walls

Paint – the most fundamental element of any decorating project – is a veritable melting pot of VOCs. The magic of paint is that it goes on wet and dries to a lovely hard-wearing, dirt-resistant finish – and it takes a complex amalgam of chemicals to perform this task. While compositions vary, fumes from standard paints can include formaldehyde, benzene, and methylene chloride. Enamel paints, being solvent-based, will release more VOCs than water-based acrylics. Tints contain VOCs as well, so the darker the colour, the higher the chemical load.

Fortunately, as paint technology has improved, several manufacturers including Porter’s Paints, Resene, Ecolour, Dulux and Wattyl now offer acrylic formulations and water-based enamel paints with low- or zero- VOC levels.

Alternatively, you could opt for a natural paint. These lime- or clay- based formulations contain no synthetic chemicals, so they’re completely safe. While not always as hard-wearing as a regular acrylic paint, they do create an attractive, more tactile finish, as seen in this living room, which has been finished with RockCote Clay Paint.

Or you could skip the paint altogether. In this Sydney cottage, rustic reclaimed bricks juxtapose nicely against the streamlined cabinetry. In reusing the existing elements of the home, architects from Studio 74 were able to retain this cottage’s depth of character while maintaining the integrity of the air quality. Note the choice of stainless steel for the benchtop – this is another completely VOC-free option for the kitchen.

Furniture

Most low-cost furniture these days is manufactured from MDF, which, as previously mentioned, presents a major source of toxic VOC emissions. In nurseries and bedrooms in particular, seek out quality furniture made from solid plantation-grown timber and painted with a low or zero-VOC finish.

Alternatively, you could save some dollars, help the environment, and create a healthier home by filling it with secondhand finds. Older varnished timber pieces will have already finished off-gassing. Or you can add a personal touch with a quick sand-back and a lick of zero-VOC paint.

What else can we do?

Building materials, furnishings, floor coverings, paint, carpets and furniture slowly release VOCs over time, and these can build up in closed-off, unventilated rooms. So throw open the windows regularly to give these emissions a chance to escape. Ideally, you want to open windows on opposite sides of a room, which will allow the cross-breeze to flush the toxins away.

Many of us inadvertently pollute our interiors when we use cleaning products to keep our kitchens and bathrooms sparkling. Chlorine bleach, oven cleaners, disinfectants, floor polish and fragrances in detergents and air fresheners can all emit vapours that are harmful to our health. The solution? Go natural with bicarb (baking) soda and vinegar, lemon juice, sturdy microfibre cloths and good old-fashioned elbow grease.

You can also use plants to freshen up your interiors – both visually and from an air-quality perspective. Research conducted at University of Technology Sydney has shown that plants can filter harmful toxins from the air. While any plant will do, some of the species shown to filter the most benzene from indoor air included old favourites such as the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana), peace lily (Spathiphyllum), and Queensland umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla).

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