Home Hacks

Often when people talk about a healthy home, their focus is on indoor air quality. As in: Is your air safe to breath, or is it going to make you sick? If the answer is the latter, then the cause is something called VOCs, which stands for volatile organic compounds.

So what are VOCs? And what do I do about them?

VOCs are those things you smell when you walk into a home that just got painted…. You know: The smell that gives you a headache and pretty much makes you want to throw up.

In scientific terms, VOCs are a group of carbon-based chemicals that are emitted as gases. An EPA research study found levels of VOCs to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside. We can’t see VOCs, but they’re everywhere in our homes, from building materials (paint, adhesives, carpets, composite wood products) to home and personal care products (air fresheners, cleaning supplies, and cosmetics). Breathing in high levels of VOCs for a short period of time can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Chronic effects include increased risk of cancer, damages to the liver, kidney, and the central nervous system.


William Brawley – CC BY 2.0

Of course, the most common VOC in a home is also the most dangerous. And the winner is? Formaldehyde. High levels of it can cause irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat. The EPA has identified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen (read: cancer-causing substance), which may increase the risk of leukemia and brain cancer. This colorless and highly flammable chemical is found in building materials and household products made out of pressed-wood products such as particleboard, plywood, and hard wood. It can come from adhesive materials (i.e., glue), varnishes, wallpaper, and the fireplace.

OK. So how do you know if VOCs are in your home? Well, that’s a tough one. A simple test is to smell. If something smells chemical-ly, they’re there. Then try the old scratch-and-sniff method, whereby you scratch your paint or plywood, and then smell. Finally, you can get an air quality specialist (Yes, there actually are such people.) to test the air. (And by the way, have them test for Radon while they’re at it.) If you have an old(ish) house, you should probably do it.

So what do you do if you find it? For an old house, the answer is to encapsulate and ventilate. The most practical way to do that is this: Coat VOC paint with non-VOC paint; add a layer of non-VOC floor finishes over the existing floor; etc. And then maybe even more importantly, get your house properly ventilated. Properly ventilating a home is worthy of its own blog, but the highlights include the following: properly seal your basement so that dirty air doesn’t come upstairs; get your bathroom and kitchen fans working properly; vent your dryer properly; consider a whole-house fan.


If you’re building or extensively renovating your own home, then the answer is much more simple: keep VOCs out. Specifically, look for no- or low-VOC paints, adhesives, and floor treatments. In particular, be careful with plywood. Most plywoods contains formaldehyde, so it can be harder to find non-VOC plywood and it can be more expensive, but it’s worth it. Just imagine how much plywood a house uses and you understand why all that Formaldehyde is nothing you want.

If you do choose to use products with VOCs, limit the amount of products you purchase to how much you’ll actually use right away. And then get rid of the leftovers! Make sure non-empty containers are disposed of properly, which may mean bringing it directly to a hazardous waste recycling center or back to the store you bought it from. And of course, when using these products, make sure the area is well ventilated and you’re using the appropriate safety gear.


I’ll close with a story: When I went to build my home, my oldest was suffering with asthma and allergies. So we built for him (and for us, of course) a carpet-free, VOC-free, Formaldehyde-free home with very good ventilation. His asthma hasn’t bothered him since we moved in. Coincidence? No way. High indoor air-quality has made all the difference.

An Afterthought:

We have made a great new partnership with The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company to promote healthier homes by using natural interior paints that have no VOCs or other chemicals in them. We are also working with them to promote the BostonEco event on Wednesday night, October 1. For those who are not familiar, BostonEco is a community event promoting healthy homes and a sustainable lifestyle. To that end, we have put together a special reward as part of our Kickstarter campaign that provides you with a subscription to our magazine, a pint of Milk Paint, and a ticket to BostonEco.  On top of all that, you will be supporting the BTW mission of creating more healthy, sustainable, energy efficient and beautiful homes. Click here to find out more.