(Beyond Pesticides, October 31, 2023) With cooler weather setting in and people heading indoors and closing windows, the issue of COVID-19 transmission escalates, as do concerns about toxic chemicals filling the indoor ambient air. As a recent segment of 60 Minutes (October 29, 2023) stresses, COVID-19 spreads elevated public concern and understanding about the importance of ventilation, filtration, and air exchange to indoor air quality. Unfortunately, the concerns about indoor air are not limited to COVID-19 as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) invade most spaces where people live and work. These invisible toxic substances can be found in common household products, furniture, mattresses, and more, including pesticides in and around the house. Recognizing the risks associated with VOCs and the potentially hazardous off-gassing process is crucial for protecting public health.Â
VOCs are a group of chemicals that can easily vaporize into the air at room temperature. These compounds are found in many everyday items, including furniture, cleaning products, pesticides, cosmetics, and even air fresheners. Some household products, particularly pesticides, can introduce their own set of risks in addition to the risks they pose due to their VOC content. VOCs can range from harmless to harmful, and their presence can have a significant impact on indoor air quality. VOCs encompass a wide range of chemicals, including formaldehyde, polyurethane foam, phthalates, acetone, and benzene.Â
VOC ingredients in pesticide products are typically withheld from product labels, hidden under the general category of â€śinertsâ€ť or â€śotherâ€ť in the ingredients panel. Manufacturers claim the ingredients to be proprietary and are not required to be disclosed to the consumer under federal pesticide law because the companies argue that they are not in the product formulation to attack the target pest. However, the undisclosed pesticide ingredients may cause adverse biological or chemical activity. This issue has sparked controversy, as advocates have unsuccessfully attempted to change U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which regulates pesticides in the United States.Â
While VOC exposure is not a new issue, there is a renewed sense of urgency to improve indoor air quality following notable studies by Joe Allen, PhD, of Harvard University, and Linsey Marr, PhD, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which have highlighted the pivotal role of subpar indoor air ventilation systems in increasing the spread of COVID-19. Namely, the studies found that the aerosolized particles containing the virus were able to spread throughout indoor rooms and increase infection rates without proper air exchange rates. In a demonstration by Dr. Marr, she visualized how exhaled breath traveled in all directions in a room with stagnant air flow, leading to the increased airborne transmission of COVID and other airborne illnesses. Then, she showed how exhaled breath traveled upwards in a uniform path inside a properly ventilated room, showing how the risk of spread decreases significantly under these conditions.
These findings are significant in the context of harmful VOCs in indoor spaces. As most indoor spaces meet bare minimum requirements of air circulation and refresh rates, places like living spaces and school classrooms are especially susceptible to locking in and spreading harmful VOCs and illnesses alike.Â
Poor ventilation indoors can exacerbate symptoms of VOC Exposure. Short-term exposure symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Prolonged exposure to harmful VOCs can result in more severe health problems, including damage to the kidney, liver, and central nervous system. Some VOCs are classified as carcinogens, increasing the risk of conditions like lung cancer.
These effects are exacerbated by a process called off-gassing, which is of critical concern when it comes to VOCs and furniture. It refers to the process by which materials containing VOCs release these chemicals into the air over time. Off-gassing is particularly prevalent in new furniture, as the VOCs have not yet been released, leading to higher emission rates.
The primary sources of off-gassing in homes are plywood and wood furniture (which often contain formaldehyde), electronic devices, mattresses, carpets, couches, paint, and construction materials found in newly built homes. Plywood and wood furniture are especially significant contributors to off-gassing because they are highly porous, absorbing substantial amounts of VOCs. This high porosity results in a prolonged release of these harmful compounds into the indoor environment, making them notable culprits in diminishing indoor air quality.
The off-gassing process is especially concerning, given EPA has expressed concerns about VOCs due to their potential health impacts. According to information on the EPA’s website, a study called the “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study,” which was completed in 1985, discovered that approximately a dozen common organic pollutants were 2 to 5 times more concentrated inside homes compared to outdoor environments. This held true regardless of whether the homes were situated in rural or highly industrial areas. The TEAM studies also revealed that when people use products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to high levels of pollutants. Even after the activity is finished, these elevated concentrations can persist in the air. The New York State Department of Health also addresses this issue in its publication titled “Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in Commonly Used Products.”
The widespread presence of these harmful chemicals in furniture and other household goods can be traced back to Californiaâ€™s old flame retardant regulations. In 1975, California implemented a regulation requiring all upholstered furniture in the state to contain flame-retardant chemicals. As California was a substantial market, manufacturers opted to adopt these standards for furniture sold nationwide, which led to the pervasive use of these toxic chemicals.
The chemicals used in flame retardants have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, neurobehavioral function issues, and adverse effects on fetal development. Eventually, this regulation was revised under the California flammability standard, SB 1019, passed in 2014, which allowed furniture manufacturers to cease using harmful flame retardant chemicals in polyurethane foam, offering a safer option for consumers. Furniture manufactured after January 1, 2015, is less likely to contain these harmful flame retardants, while products purchased between 1975 and 2014 may expose families to these toxic chemicals.
However, other harmful VOCs are still present in furniture and other household items. Newborns and infants are especially vulnerable to the effects of the resulting off-gassing, as their developing bodies are more sensitive to environmental toxins. Mattresses and baby items can emit harmful VOCs, potentially affecting the health and well-being of children. Parents should exercise caution when choosing products for their nurseries and opt for those labeled with Greenguard certifications, which indicate low or no levels of hazardous VOCs.
Despite the well-documented adverse effects of certain VOCs that permeate household products, EPA refrains from implementing regulations concerning these chemicals within the home. This is in stark contrast to their oversight of outdoor air quality, where VOCs are regulated. EPA maintains that its jurisdiction does not extend to indoor air quality and it regulates only under section 183(e) of the Clean Air Act (Act), while states have plans approved by the agency.
EPA explicitly notes that â€ś[E]ven if we had the authority to regulate indoor air quality, it would be difficult to regulate household (or other) products because we have no authority to collect information on the chemical content of products in the marketplace (nor does any Federal Agency).â€ť
In fact, EPA has a history of approving harmful aerosol air sanitizer pesticides for use against COVID-19 and other bacteria and viruses. In October 2022, the EPA approved 32 varieties of a new pesticide for air sanitizers. The formulation contained 14% dipropylene glycol, with the other 86% of the formulation not specified. This action, while intended to decrease pathogens in indoor air, failed to do so by not taking into account that disinfectants and sanitizers emit VOCs and negatively affect the immune system, thus reducing resistance to disease. Instead of exercising jurisdiction over improving indoor air ventilation, the EPA turned to harmful pesticides once again, putting people with preexisting conditions, the elderly, and children at elevated risk from exposure.Â
Therefore, given the lack of protective action from government agencies, it is crucial to make informed choices and protect your family. Consider these steps when shopping for furniture and household items:
- Check Labels: With pressed-wood products, look for furniture items that meet ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or no added formaldehyde (NAF) standards. Products labeled as “Zero VOCâ€ť and â€śLow VOC” are also safer choices.
- Look for organic furniture and mattresses that are certified free from VOCs and flame retardants.Â With mattresses, check if materials meet the Global Organic Textile Standard.
- Increase Ventilation: Proper ventilation can help reduce indoor air pollution. Ensure your living space is well-ventilated, particularly when introducing new furniture or items.
- Filter Your Air: Air purifiers with activated carbon filters can help remove VOCs from the air, improving indoor air quality.
- Choose Safer Alternatives: When possible, opt for solid wood furniture, used furniture that has had time to air out, and electronic devices with low VOC emissions.
If you discover that you own products containing harmful VOCs or flame retardants and wish to dispose of them responsibly, consider disposing of them at hazardous waste facilities or contacting manufacturers. Some manufacturers offer take-back programs for their products, which can be an environmentally responsible way to dispose of old items.
With increased awareness, informed consumer choices, and the proper disposal of harmful products, individuals can reduce their exposure to these toxins, creating safer and healthier living environments for themselves and their families. The power to protect well-being begins with understanding the hidden dangers within one’s own home.
For more information on harmful toxins in the home and to stay updated on other toxic chemicals and pesticides, please visit the Beyond Pesticides website.Â
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.Â
Source: EWG, What Are VOCs?