Love Your Lungs

Learn more about the most common home chemicals linked to respiratory irritation and lung cancer.


A whole-house filter will effectively remove chlorine and disinfection byproducts (DBPs) from the water

Photo by GAP Photos

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Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 Americans were diagnosed with the illness in 2011. Because lung cancer typically produces few symptoms until the disease is advanced, most cases are diagnosed after the cancer has spread. It’s the most common cause of death from cancer. While smoking remains the No. 1 risk factor for lung cancer, the EPA lists radon and other airborne chemicals as the second-leading cause of the disease. Eliminate the following risk factors from your home.

All About VOCs

You’ve probably heard the term VOCs bandied about in just about any discussion of indoor air quality. But do you know exactly what VOCs are, which ones are most dangerous and how to reduce them in your home?

VOCs are volatile organic compounds. Volatile means these chemicals have a low boiling point and go into gaseous states at low temperatures, making them airborne and easily inhaled. A long list of chemicals fits under the VOC umbrella. Many VOCs are known irritants and toxicants with adverse health effects of acute and chronic exposure, including asthma and other respiratory diseases; liver and kidney dysfunction; neurologic impairment; and cancer. Possible signs of acute exposure include irritation to the nose, throat and eyes; breathlessness; headache; nausea; dizziness; and fatigue. People with asthma may have worsened symptoms.

However, not all VOCs are bad. Take, for instance, plant essential oils such as lavender, peppermint or eucalyptus—all VOCs. When you peel an orange, you smell natural VOCs. (You’ll often notice an odor from VOCs.) Yet, when levels of ozone (an air pollutant) are high, even seemingly harmless chemicals in citrus and pine essential oils (used in air fresheners and to scent many cleaning agents) can react with ozone to form formaldehyde, other VOCs and ultrafine particles, which can damage the heart and lungs. Speaking of ozone, some people make the mistake of using store-bought air purifiers that add this gas to the air. Paul Ziemann and Jose Jimenez, professors at the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at the University of Colorado, advise against that. Formed by joining three oxygen atoms together, ozone disinfects but also irritates tissues, especially the lungs. It also forms dangerous compounds from reactions with VOCs.

An EPA study found levels of about a dozen common VOCs to be two to five times higher inside homes than outside. For certain activities, such as stripping paint, exposure is high during use and can persist for hours afterward. In 2014, a team led by Stuart Batterman, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, determined prominent personal VOC exposures. Outside the house, the top causes of exposure included gasoline vapors, vehicle exhaust and chlorinated solvents. Inside the house, exposure came primarily from disinfection byproducts (bleach and, in some cities, chlorinated drinking water), cleaning products and odorants (product fragrances).

At least three factors determine whether or not any given VOC can cause adverse effects:

1. Concentration: A toxic chemical is less likely to harm you if you’re exposed to small amounts for short periods of time.

2. Toxicity Level: Not all VOCs are harmful to our health. Menthol from peppermint, for example, is used to flavor candy.

3. Length of Time and Frequency: Workers chronically exposed to high levels of a substance are more at risk than consumers.

Other Sources of Indoor Air Pollution

Tobacco: Smoking remains the No. 1 risk factor for cancer. Cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemicals and several carcinogens, including arsenic and cadmium. Smoking and exposure to cigarette smoke can lead to exposure to VOCs such as benzene, ethylbenzene, acetone (generally found in nail polish remover), styrene, toluene and formaldehyde. Other poisonous substances include ammonia, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) is commonly referred to as secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke contributes to about 49,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. But ETS also creates “third-hand smoke,” the residual chemicals that settle on indoor surfaces as well as clothes and hair. Nonsmoking adults, infants and children can pick up these toxins from furniture, drapes, bedding, walls and carpets—and airing out the room won’t eliminate the residue.

Radon: The second-leading cause of lung cancer, radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas emitted as radium (a product of uranium) decays. Airborne particles are inhaled. All homes should be tested for radon, regardless of geographic location, according to the EPA. To find out if your home is high in radon, order a test kit. For more information, visit the EPA website. If levels are high, contact a professional about sealing foundation cracks and holes, and venting air to the outside.

Asbestos: Asbestos exposure is another serious risk factor, especially among people who smoke. The substance was once widely used to fire-proof construction materials, including structures in buildings such as heating systems; ceiling and wall insulation; roof shingles; and floor and ceiling tiles. In older homes, these materials can break down to release airborne fibers that may become inhaled. Dealing with asbestos is tricky, as removal is not always the best choice. The EPA only requires asbestos removal to prevent significant public exposure; generally, they recommend an in-place management program when asbestos has been discovered and is in good condition. If materials in your older home (from the 1970s or earlier) are decaying, and you think they could contain asbestos, contact a professional.

Chlorine: Liquid chlorine bleach is a 5.25 percent solution of sodium hypochlorite. The fumes are irritating to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Chlorine can combine with compounds in water to form trihalomethanes, a group of VOCs also referred to as disinfection byproducts (DBPs). These DBPs have been linked to cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. If bleach contacts your skin, rinse with soap and water for several minutes to minimize irritation.

Never mix chlorine bleach with other cleaning agents. All-purpose cleaners may contain ammonia, which, combined with chlorine, forms chloramine. Breathing fumes from this chemical reaction can be fatal. Instead of cleaning with bleach, turn to natural cleaners (find recipes in our Guide to Homemade Cleaners).

Chlorine is also used to disinfect municipal drinking water in order to eliminate germs such as salmonella and norovirus. Water coming into the house contains chlorine and DBPs. You drink the water. Chlorine and DBPs also contact the skin while washing. DBPs can be inhaled in the shower or when the dishwasher and washing machine are running. A carbon filter attached to the kitchen faucet can reduce chlorine there, but a whole-house filter is required to treat other water sources, including the dishwasher, washing machine and shower.

If you want more information about the potential health effects of household products, check out the Household Products Database, maintained by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Learn how to avoid VOCs in 12 Tips to Reduce Exposure to Dangerous Household Chemicals.

Products That May Release VOCs

* Pesticides
* Mothballs
* Household cleaning supplies
* Citrus and pine oil cleaners
* Furniture polishes
* Dry-cleaning chemicals
* Spot removers
* Fabric and leather cleaners
* Permanent markers
* Dry-erase markers
* Copiers and printers
* Building and upholstery materials
* Paints (especially spray paints)
* Varnishes
* Paint strippers
* Some glues, adhesives and adhesive removers
* Refrigerant from air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers and dehumidifiers
* Nail polish and nail polish remover
* Rubbing alcohol
* Perfumes
* Hair spray
* Air fresheners
* Emissions from gas- and diesel-combusting engines
* Auto-maintenance products

Common VOCs to Avoid

Name of VOC

Examples of Products Containing It

Possible Ill Health Effects

Benzene Gasoline * Paints and some art supplies * Motor vehicle exhaust * Cigarette smoke * Industrial solvents
Lab and animal studies link inhalation to leukemia and other blood cell cancers.
Methylene Chloride
Paint stripper * Film coatings * Metal cleaning * Aerosols for paints, automotive products and insect sprays Inhalation can cause cancer of lungs, liver and benign mammary (breast) gland tumors in animals. Noncancer effects in humans include headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory loss.
(perchloroethylene or PERC)
Dry cleaning * Textile processing * Metal degreasing Bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma is higher in workers exposed to the chemical. Living closer to a PERC dry cleaner is associated with an increased risk of developing kidney disease.
Formaldehyde Tobacco smoke * Pressed-wood products * Fertilizers * Glues * Certain types of insulation * Unvented fuel-burning appliances (wood stoves, gas stoves, kerosene heaters) * Some disinfectants, antibacterial soaps and beauty products Inhalation may lead to nose and throat cancer, leukemia, respiratory allergies in kids and asthma attacks in susceptible people.
Naphthalene* Industry and tailpipe emissions * Woodstoves * Mothballs and moth flakes * Cigarettes * Toilet and diaper pail deodorizers Inhalation can lead to chronic lung irritation, cataracts and retinal damage, as well as a special kind of anemia (hemolytic anemia) in infants born to mothers who sniffed and ingested mothballs during pregnancy. Animal studies have linked exposure to lung and other cancers.
(also known as PDCB or 1,4-dichlorobenze)
Pesticides to control moths and insects * Deodorizers for toilet bowls and diaper pails It's harmful to the liver, skin and central nervous system. It can cause liver cancer and reduced sperm count in animals. Because it's linked as a possible carcinogen in humans, California has restricted sales of consumer goods and New York has restricted sales of PDCB-containing toilet deodorizers.

*A word about naphthalene and para-dichlorobenzene. Both have numerous uses, including as pesticides, especially against moths (mothballs and moth flakes) and deodorizers (in toilet bowls and diaper pails). Research by Professor Stuart Batterman and colleagues shows that, in homes where naphthalene is used liberally, this chemical appears “to eclipse risks attributable to other indoor air pollutants that have been identified to pose chronic health risks with the exception of particulate matter and perhaps radon.” His group states that the most efficient way to prevent high exposures is to ban the use of naphthalene-containing mothballs. Para-dichlorobenzene, which has become a substitute for naphthalene, has its own health risks and should also be avoided.

Linda B. White is the author of Health Now: An Integrative Approach to Personal Health and the co-author of 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them.