5 Ways to Free Your Home of Dangerous Chemicals

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, can have a negative impact on your health.


You've probably heard the term VOC, which stands for volatile organic compounds. VOCs are chemicals that give off gas from certain materials and liquids. These chemicals hang around our homes, sometimes for years, polluting the indoor air and causing adverse health effects. VOCs are one of the main reasons that indoor air is often 200 times more polluted than the outdoor air.

The EPA claims that VOCs can cause ear, eyes and throat irritation, headaches, and damage to our liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Some are even suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. If you want to breathe easier in your home, then getting rid of VOCs is a great way to start. So, how do you do it?

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1. Buy Low-VOC Paint

You know the chemical smell that hangs around a room after you apply a new coat of paint? Yeah, those are VOCs, and they're not good for you. Paints are the second-largest source of VOC emissions (after a new car), so making a change here can really make a difference. You can lower your home's VOC emissions by switching to low-VOC paints, which are easy to find at most major home improvement stores.

2. Ditch Your Plastic Shower Curtain

Studies have shown that vinyl shower curtains off-gas over 100 different chemicals when you buy them new. Instead of buying a new vinyl shower curtain next time yours bites the dust, go with fabric (which is washable and much more eco-friendly).

 3. Go With Natural Cleaners

Commercial cleaners are loaded with harmful chemicals. As they dry on surfaces (like your floors, shower and windows) they off-gas these chemicals into the air. In fact, California is now forcing manufacturers to reduce the levels of VOCs in their cleaning products.

For the rest of us living in the other 49 states, reducing VOCs in our cleaning products is up to us. Make a switch to a more natural cleaner like Seventh Generation. Or, you could go 100 percent natural by cleaning with baking soda and vinegar. That's what I use to clean just about everything in my home, and it works great. Another option is to create your own natural cleaners. For example, there are homemade laundry detergent recipes and even natural homemade shampoo recipes.

4. Avoid New Carpet

All new carpets emit VOCs once they're unrolled. To reduce the VOCs in your home, ask the carpet installer to air out the carpet for a day or two before they show up at your door. And, try to have carpet installed in the summer; this will allow you to keep doors and windows open. Ventilation and moving air is vital to getting the chemicals out of your home, so set up a fan and keep all windows open as long as possible to reduce your exposure.

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There are carpets that have lower VOC emissions. You can usually find these alternatives at major flooring and home improvement stores. Make sure you check on the carpet adhesive, however. This is a major source of VOC emissions. If your carpet is "green", it won't do you much good if the installer is still using a polluting adhesive or glue. Alternatively, you can go with other home flooring ideas like hardwood, tile, laminate, or cork.

5. Avoid These Other Products

So what else should you steer clear of when it comes to VOCs?

  • Mothballs
  • New furniture
  • Pressed wood cabinets
  • Plywood
  • Pesticides
  • Nail polish
  • Fuels and auto-related products
  • Final Word

    It can feel a bit overwhelming when you start trying to rid your home of all VOCs. When I first found out about VOCs, and how harmful they were, I went a bit over the edge. Start by making small but meaningful changes, especially when you're doing home improvements and renovations. And remember, plants work as filters to help clean up your indoor air. The more plants you have, the more they'll help give you a healthy indoor environment.

    Have you made it a point to help clear the VOCs in your home or to switch to eco-friendly products? If so, what additional tips do you have for getting rid of harmful chemicals in the air inside your home?

    Heather Levin writes about environmental issues, "going green", and saving money on The Greenest Dollar as well as the Money Crashers personal finance blog.