Love Your Lungs

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


| May/June 2015



bathroom

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


Photo by GAP Photos

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:

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