We clean our homes and offices not only so they’ll look good but to provide a healthy environment. Our cleaning products shouldn’t make us sick. But some commercial products contain hazardous chemicals, particularly, volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Let’s take a look at VOCs in cleaning products and their effects on indoor air quality and health.
Organic chemicals contain carbon and come from something that was once alive. They’re called volatile organic compounds when solids or liquids emit them as a gas.
Literally thousands of VOCs exist. When they are part of consumer products, they might contribute to the working of the product or they might be incidental. In any case, they release gases as you use them. Some products may release VOCs even when they’re stored.
It’s not only cleaning products you need to be aware of if you’re concerned about VOCs. They’re in paint and other finishes, caulks, sealants, flooring, carpeting, upholstery, and pressed wood products. They’re in clothes that you bring home from the dry cleaner. If you do arts and crafts, they’re in the glues and permanent markers as well as paints. Smoking releases VOCs. So does your printer.
Volatile organic compounds in cleaning products
Here is a partial list of common VOCs that cleaning products may contain:
- Chlorinates (Carbon Tetrachloride, Tetrachloroethylene)
- Glycol ethers (2-butoxyethanol)
- Hydrocarbons (Benzene, Toluene)
- Isothiazolinones (Methylisothiazolinone (MI), Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), and Benzisothiazolinone (BIT)
- Phthalates (Butylbenzyl Phthalate, Dibutyl Phthalate)
- Terpenes (Limonene)
Labels may or may not mention one or more of these chemicals. They very often include “fragrance.” Can you imagine how many different chemicals and chemical families might come under that heading?
Cleaning products with VOCs include anything that comes from an aerosol spray. If the label says “fragrance,” it’s a VOC that smells good. Air fresheners do nothing besides releasing VOCs into your indoor air. Regardless of advertising claims, they do not clean anything or remove odors. They only cover them up with something that smells better.
You may suspect that any product you can smell has VOCs. It’s not strictly true. The stench of ammonia, bleach, and oven cleaners does not result from VOCs. It doesn’t matter, though. If a product smells bad, it’s bad for your lungs and bad for indoor air quality.
Labeling of cleaning products
Terms such as green, natural, or eco-friendly have no legal meaning. A claim on a label that a product is non-toxic means more but still may not be true.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 requires maintaining an inventory of all chemicals manufactured or imported into the US. Currently, it includes more than 83,000. And how many has the EPA tested for safety? According to some estimates, it may be as few as 300.
European law requires disclosure only of ingredients that make up 0.2% or more of the product or are known to be harmful. US law lacks even those requirements.
Consumer advocates want the government to require stricter labeling. Manufacturers claim that long lists of ingredients would take up space needed for other important safety information.
The government could require a full list of ingredients on the manufacturer’s website. It probably wouldn’t help much. For one thing, most consumers probably wouldn’t look there. For another, few people would know what most of those chemicals do without a lot more searching.
The EPA has a Safer Choice program to certify products with safer ingredients. You can look for the Safer Choice label and know that, among other things, the product will have a low level of VOCs if any at all. You can also use the EPA’s online tools to identify Safer Choice products.
Other certification labels include Green Seal or Ecologo. The Ecological Working Group maintains a list of eco-friendly (and therefore low-VOC) cleaning products that may or may not display certification on the label.
Health effects of volatile organic compounds
On the other hand, a friend of mine had to change churches after her former one put down new carpets. Months later, she still couldn’t spend an hour in the building without becoming sick.
Modern buildings are sealed. That is, they limit the exchange between indoor and outdoor air. Sealed buildings have numerous advantages, but as one consequence, indoor air can have higher concentrations of air pollutants than outdoor air. They last longer in indoor air because they disperse more slowly.
In particular, concentrations of VOCs are consistently up to ten times higher indoors than out.
Some VOCs are highly toxic. Others have no known health effect.
Health effects can include:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat
- Loss of coordination
- Damage to the kidneys, liver, or central nervous system
Some VOCs cause various cancers. Others are suspected carcinogens.
Different cleaning products contain different VOCs. You might use multiple products in the course of a day’s cleaning. In that case, you release an unpredictable mixture of VOCs. It’s impossible to predict how they might interact.
We do know, however, that VOCs can interact with ozone in the air to make formaldehyde, which can cause cancer.
Actual risk from hazardous chemicals in cleaning products is probably low. There’s no need to be afraid of them, provided you study the labels and follow all the instructions carefully. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It just makes sense to prefer products that work well without hazardous chemicals.
For all the warnings about VOCs in cleaning products, people buy and use one class of VOCs deliberately: essential oils.
People have used essential oils for thousands of years. They have some medicinal purposes. More to the point for this post, the most popular ones smell good. Many recipes for DIY cleaning products include optional essential oils. I suspect most of the people who recommend and use them don’t stop to think that they’re VOCs.
A few drops of an essential oil in a pint of cleaner are unlikely to harm any but the most sensitive people. On the other hand, many people diffuse essential oils into the room to breathe. Misusing or abusing essential oils has caused some serious health problems.
Whatever you use in your home, for whatever purpose––including essential oils––follow all instructions for your own safety.
Cleaning supplies and household chemicals / American Lung Association. Last updated July 13, 2020
Identifying greener cleaning products / US Environmental Protection Agency
VOCs in household cleaning products / Safe Household Cleaning. January 16, 2018
Volatile organic compounds / American Lung Association. Last updated February 12, 2020
Volatile organic compounds’ impact on indoor air quality / US Environmental Protection Agency
What is green cleaning and what does it look like in your home? / David Guion, Sustainability Scout