What are VOCs and why should new parents care?
VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds. These are gases emitted from certain solids or liquids. When this happens, the term often used is ‘off gassing’, a phrase you’ll probably see more often in the future.
The word “volatile” means that chemicals present within the item can evaporate into the air at room temperature and the word “organic” means that chemicals within the item are carbon based. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short or long-term adverse health effects.
VOCs are emitted by a wide range of products, numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings (including baby and infant mattresses), office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions” (content examples taken from the epa website).
Because they are emitted by these kinds of products, concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors and can be up to ten times higher than outdoors.
Commonly Loved VOCs
- Plants and trees emit VOCs. Most of us love the smell of freshly cut grass, which is actually a wound defence mechanism on its part.
- Or that new car smell – most of us love that smell. But if you delve deeper into what causes that smell, then you may not be so mad on it.
- New furniture – when we open a new wardrobe with its beautiful gloss paint finishing and ‘bang!’, we get that waft of ‘newness’ generated by the chemicals used in its construction, as well as the finishing paint job.
To some people it generates a feeling of validation towards something they have just spent money on. To others, though, it can cause an ill feeling that may include nose and throat irritation, dizziness or nausea.
For years, I myself never really questioned why I sometimes felt ill around new items of furniture in the house or when entering a freshly painted room. I just needed fresh air. I can be quite sensitive to some odours that do not seem to affect others. When I became aware of VOCs, I began to question if some manufacturers really cared about what goes into their products.
What the Doctors say
We are informed by medical practitioners how sensitive new babies, toddlers and children are to our everyday surroundings, more so than adults. Their immune systems, bodies and bones are in a state of constant development as they grow older and stronger.
They are therefore much more sensitive to the gaseous emissions from items of furniture and décor in their bedrooms. This includes the cot or crib mattress, where they would be spending a considerable amount of time. Unfortunately, we don’t always know what chemicals go into the furniture and mattresses during production.
The Reason we have VOCs
Why is it, though, that manufacturers are not obliged to only use chemicals that are proven less harmful in the production of their goods? Because there is a lack of proper enforcement by regulatory authorities.
Why is it that manufacturers don’t want to use less harmful chemicals in the production of their goods? Because it makes them more expensive to produce and they think they will sell less.
So for now it is really down to you, the consumer, and your own preference as to what you buy for your home. Are you happy enough to trust in the manufacturer? Or do you drill down further for information on where the product actually comes from, who makes it and what’s in it? It is a bit more difficult in these days of contract manufacturing to find such information as more than likely one company makes it and another company on the other side of the world puts their name on it.
We also have to ask ourselves if we are concerned enough about VOCs that we would consider spending more on a product because it will cause less air pollution in our house and is probably better for the health of our family.
The Times they are A-Changin’
Some manufactures are not upfront on what they use. Some are, because they know that’s what some consumers want to know before buying, and if that’s the case then that particular manufacturer will more than likely be supplying a product that uses less harmful chemicals considered low in VOC emissions.
My belief though is that not enough companies are transparent about what goes into the production of their products. As consumers, we are not asking the hard questions that would encourage them to be more open. At times we seem to be more concerned with how cheap the product is. This is understandable, particularly given the economic trauma of the last 8 years or so.
Thankfully, consumers’ demands are evolving, and with the internet we have more access to vital information about companies and their products and access to their customer service departments. This is making more companies become socially responsible.
Governments are also becoming increasingly concerned about what exports leave their shores and the effect they can have on their country’s image. There is still a long way to go before every manufacturer must state clearly what components, chemicals and processes are involved in the production of their products, but a growing number are already doing so. And there is still always the continuous scientific development of safer compounds that gives us much hope for the future that someday everything in our house will be low in VOC emissions.
Education is the Key
There are more people who now know what VOCs are and not just smelling them. Most Americans have heard of and understand the term VOCs. The US government is setting down regulations with regard to manufacturing and VOCs. American companies now need to pay much more attention to what they use in the manufacturing of their products for the good of their customers. However, the term is not so familiar in Europe but I am quite sure that this is about to change. I, for one, am more than happy to help to spread the word so that more people can watch out for their health.
VOCs in Cot Mattresses
Worryingly, there is evidence of widespread use of VOCs in the manufacture of mattresses for infants. A survey of US cot mattress manufacture concluded that over half of baby mattresses they inspected contained either ‘chemicals of concern’ or allergens.