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What Are VOCs?

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outdoor furniture, bamboo, cedar

Volatile organic compounds – or VOCs, for short – are a common aspect of our daily lives, and they deserve some explanation if only because they have a very scary name that makes it sound like they should be avoided at all costs.

To be sure, VOCs are not friendly fumes, but there are a lot of different kinds and they can range from mildly annoying to flat-out lethal. Let’s learn a little more about them and how they can impact our lives.

VOCs Defined

A VOC is “a substance that contains carbon and that evaporates (becomes a vapor) or “off-gases” at room temperature.” What that doesn’t tell you, though, is how many there are and how varied they can be in their impact.

VOCs are found in fairly innocuous things like waxes, paints and even cosmetics, but they’re also found in gasoline and pesticides, which helps illustrate how one VOC may differ from the next.

VOC Impact

The U.S. Clean Air Act regulates VOC emissions as a way to reduce ozone levels, and those guidelines apply to everything from aerosols to shaving gels. This is important to note, because it helps to further broaden the understanding of what VOCs are.

Studies show that health effects vary greatly, and while the EPA has set level limits for different VOC sources, there’s little agreement on what constitutes a harmful level.

VOCs & You

There’s no benefit in downplaying the impact of VOCs, but it also never helps to worry when the situation doesn’t merit it. VOCs dissipate over time, and safety can be assured even if heavy amounts are present when the proper steps are taken (like using aerosols and paints in ventilated areas).

Many states now require products that contain VOCs to be listed on the packaging, and there are also resources available online that can help. The EPA website on Indoor Air Quality is a good place to start if you want to learn more about VOCs. 

This picnic table from Salish Cedar is crafted in locally harvested western red cedar with a VOC-free wood sealer.

The Native Trails “Solace” mirror is made of handwoven bamboo and FSC-certified wood, and features a low-VOC finish.

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