It all started when I was REALLY pregnant with my third child. Our old mattress was hurting my back, and I could not get comfortable enough to sleep well. We thought about purchasing a new mattress, but unfortunately, we just couldn’t afford it at the time (and an organic one wasn’t even an option) so my mother-in-law surprised us one evening with a top-of-the-line foam-top mattress pad.
I knew a little bit about toxins in mattresses so I assumed that the mattress pad was very much the same, however, the only thing I knew to do at the time was to let it air out. Unfortunately, it was supposed to pour rain that night so our only option was to let it air out indoors. And, to make matters worse, the only place we had to lay this beast of a mattress pad was over our treadmill… which was in our bedroom.
I opened all the windows so the air could circulate, but when it was time for bed, we shut them so the rain didn’t come in. Within minutes, our room smelled of chemicals. I remember being a bit concerned, but Dean didn’t think it smelled too strong, so we left it there and slept.
Over the course of the night, I woke up time and time again. Each time, I felt sick, I was having crazy dreams, my head hurt, or I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And there beside me, my husband slept soundly like nothing was bothering him at all. So, I’d just roll over and try to go back to sleep, just waiting till morning so we could get that thing out of our room.
The next morning I woke up with a terrible headache as well a very sick stomach, but Dean felt just fine. Thankfully, at that point, he moved the mattress pad out to the porch so it could air out outside in the sun for the rest of the day, and the kids and I wouldn’t have to be exposed to it any longer.
Looking back, I realize how little I knew about toxins. I was PREGNANT, and I slept in the same room as that mattress pad off-gassing a ton of it’s VOCs right into our room… the very air we were breathing that night.
Aye-aye-aye, y’all. Live and learn. I definitely learned, and so did my husband.
Now, we’re much more careful about putting brand new things into our home right away and exposing ourselves to their toxins. No, we don’t buy all organic products. Of course, that would be nice, but we still can’t afford to do that… at least not 100% of the time. No, we don’t buy everything used (although we do buy some things used). And no, we aren’t going to move out of our home and live in a rustic cabin (although, that does sort of sound like fun at times) either.
Instead, we do other things to decrease VOCs and off-gassing in our home, and if you’re in a similar situation, you can do these same things too. Not only are these things a bit more practical than ditching all your furniture, never buying new clothes, and opting for natural wood as opposed to paint, but they’re altogether good for you. Now, before I get into my tips on how to decrease VOCs and off-gassing, let me first tell you about them and why you should care about decreasing them in your home.
What Are VOCs And Off-Gassing Anyway?
“VOC” stands for volatile organic compounds. These are mixtures of organic elements that come together to form a compound. These compounds are referred to as “volatile” because they evaporate rather quickly at normal temperatures.
VOCs are found in all kinds of products from household cleaners, to indoor pesticides, to glue, furniture varnish and paint, cosmetics, hair spray, etc.. Now, because VOCs in these common products evaporate and turn to gas quickly, they are said to “off-gas” into the air in your home.
Off-gassing is something that’s continually happening although it happens at a faster pace when something is drying (such as glue or paint) or when temperatures are increased (think of the plastics, leather bonding chemicals, and carpet from a new car that’s been sitting in the sun). It’s this off-gassing that is referred to when products are slowly releasing their VOCs into the air, and the whole off-gassing process can take quite a while (some say years) before it completely stops. Thankfully, though, the amount of off-gassing does lessen over time.
How VOCs Can Negatively Impact Your Health
VOCs are linked to a lot of different health issues, and like drugs and herbs, they have a synergistic effect when combined, making them even stronger (Janssen et al., n.d.).
Dr. Alan Christianson, an naturopathic endocrinologist, calls these kinds of toxins “flirty toxins,” as these come and go in the body quickly. These are the toxins that are metabolized by the liver and kidneys before being passed out of the body, not the kinds of toxins that embed in the tissues of the body (like heavy metals) for long periods of time (Christianson, n.d.).
Common symptoms of exposure to VOCs and off-gassing are headaches, nausea, dizziness, trouble breathing, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. More serious effects can be damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system, and some VOCs have been linked to cancers in animals and suspected cancers in humans.
The seriousness of the symptoms a person experiences usually has to do with the amount of VOCs they’re exposed to and the amount of time they were exposed (Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality, 2016).
How To Decrease VOCs And Off-Gassing In Your Home
Now that you know what VOCs and off-gassing are as well as why you should do your best to avoid these things, let’s look as some practical ways to decrease VOCs and off-gassing in your home.
1. Avoid Toxins
Now, I mentioned earlier that this isn’t always possible, but it does pay off to try to decrease VOCs and off-gassing as much as possible. Buying organic, using natural products with names you can pronounce, staying away from synthetic things (like plastics and fragrances), going with green, eco-friendly options, buying used (or floor model products), and even making as many things from scratch (or purchasing them from others who make them from scratch) will all help you to decrease VOCs and off-gassing in your home.
But let’s say you do opt for the toxins because that’s all you can do at the moment. What are some other ways you can help yourself decrease VOCs and off-gassing?
2. Go No or Low-VOC
Nowadays, as there’s more awareness around chemicals and their negative effects on our health, many companies are offering no or low-VOC options for paints, stains, and glues as well as furniture finishes. If you look at the label and you see GREENGUARD, Scientific Certification Systems, or SGS Group approval, then the product is a sustainable and no to low-emitting product. If you’re looking to remodel or build a new home or to purchase new furniture, do a quick Goolge search for “low-VOC” followed by whatever you’re thinking about buying. Tons of results will come up, helping you be more informed about your options.
Another low-cost option that can potentially help you decrease VOCs and off-gassing in your home is to try to neutralize VOCs using baking soda. This doesn’t really work for furniture or paints, but it will work for mattresses and carpets or rugs. Baking soda is alkaline, and when it comes into contact with an acid (like most VOCs), it reacts and binds the acid which helps to neutralize the smell.
3. Purify Your Air
One of the best things you can do to decrease VOCs and off-gassing in your home is to purify your air. That can be as simple as opening the windows or turning on some fans so the air circulates, moving the VOCs out and bringing fresh clean air in, or it can be that you purchase air purifiers for your home. There are a variety of air purifiers on the market today, and all seem to be designed to do different things. Some are inexpensive, some purify larger spaces, and some are quiet. No matter what you’re looking for with an air purifier, if you want it to decrease the VOCs in your air, be sure you choose one that has a charcoal filter. To help you in your search for the right air purifier for your home, check out this list of the best air purifiers of 2016 from Aparthment Therapy.
Another way to decrease VOCs and off-gassing is to increase the amount of indoor plants you have in your home. All plants purify the air, but some do it quicker than others. Lifehacker has a cool NASA infographic that details specific plants and the chemicals that they are known to filter from the air. Below is a list of these plants, but some are known to be toxic to pets if they eat them so if you’re a pet owner, do some extra research about each plant before you put it in your home.
- Dwarf Date Palm
- Boston Fern
- Kimberly Queen Fern
- Spider Plant
- Chinese Evergreen
- Bamboo Palm
- Weeping Fig
- Devil’s Ivy
- Flamingo Lily
- Lily Turf
- Broadleaf Lady Palm
- Barberton Daisy
- Cornstalk Dracaena
- English Ivy
- Verigated Snake Plant
- Red-Edged Dracaena
- Peace Lily
- Florist’s Chrysanthemum
4. Take It Outside
You can also decrease VOCs and off-gassing in your home by letting new products air out before bringing them indoors. Concentration is key here so this should be done in a large, open space if possible. If you have time and can let something sit out outside or in a garage for a week before bringing it into your home, it will reduce your exposure to VOCs quite a bit. This is why floor models are good options when purchasing new appliances or furniture. Not only are they typically cheaper, but they’ve had a lot more time to off-gas in the store.
Another option to help decrease VOCs and off-gassing is to expose new things to heat as heat increases the evaporation rate of VOCs. Think about a new car that sits in the sun all day. As soon as you open the doors that “new car smell” comes pouring out. Part of that is because heat has built up inside the car and increased the off-gassing from the carpet, plastic, and glue inside the car. If you can let new products sit out in the sun when you’re airing them out, it can help speed up the off-gassing process. As far as new cars go, be sure to open the doors or roll the windows down so the car can air out before getting in or putting your kids in.
5. Detox Your Body
Lastly, the more you can keep your elimination pathways open and support your body’s natural detoxing processes, the better. That means, drink plenty of water to keep your kidneys flushed and eat fiber or take natural fiber supplements to keep bowels moving. Get outside and breathe fresh air. Do some indoor or outdoor work to promote sweating in order to release toxins (working out and sitting in a sauna works too). Again, the goal is to keep your elimination pathways open (Horne, 2007).
So there you go. VOCs are best avoided if you can, but sometimes that simply isn’t possible or convenient in our modern worlds. Instead, do what you can to minimize your exposure to VOCs and off-gassing, and perhaps, as time goes on and sitations change, you’ll have better options or be able to make better decisions next time around.
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- Christianson, A. (n.d.). Toxins. Retrieved February 17, 2017, from http://drchristianson.com/toxins/
- Horne, S. H. (2007). The ABC Herbal: a simplified guide to natural health care for children. Warsaw, IN: Whitman Publications.
- Janssen, S., Solomon, G., & Schettler, T. (n.d.). About the Toxicant and Disease Database. Retrieved February 17, 2017, from https://www.healthandenvironment.org/what-we-do/toxicant-and-disease-database/about-the-toxicant-and-disease-database
- Pinola, M. (2015, May 20). This Graphic Shows the Best Air-Cleaning Plants, According to NASA. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from http://lifehacker.com/this-graphic-shows-the-best-air-cleaning-plants-accord-1705307836
- Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality. (2016, December 05). Retrieved February 16, 2017, from https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality