What are VOCs?
People walking into a newly constructed or recently renovated home or building will often comment about the “new” home or office smell. While this “new” smell is pleasant to some, and may invoke feelings of a clean and fresh indoor environment, usually it actually means the person is being exposed to high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes VOCs as organic chemical compounds whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor atmospheric conditions of temperature and pressure. A few examples of VOCs include formaldehyde, toluene and acetone.
New construction and recently renovated buildings typically have these strong odors due to off-gassing from new building materials, finishes and furnishings. These may include treated or engineered wood products, carpets, flooring, cabinets, paints, stains, varnishes, caulking, adhesives and other materials.
Elevated levels of some VOCs are easily detected through smell, while others may be undetectable without the use of air monitoring instruments (PID) or specialized air tests. The ability of these chemical compounds to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic or known carcinogens, to those with no known health effects. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches and dizziness are common exposure complaints. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of any health effects depend on many factors, including the individual, chemical compound, level of exposure and length of time exposed.
VOC levels in the indoor air will decrease over time, but just how long it will take depends on a number of factors. However, VOCs can also be reintroduced into the indoor environment from the use of some common materials, including many cleaning supplies, air fresheners, pesticides and aerosol sprays.