Reduce Indoor VOCs For Your Asthma Kids

Back before the final days of this election stole my brain, I wrote this post about Environmental Working Group’s recent roundtable on kids’ health and exposure to VOCs in the home. In it, I promised to write more about VOCs and asthma in particular.

I’ve divided this post into sections starting with a quick definition on VOCs, so you can skip around if you already know some of this.

What are Volatile Organic Compounds?
The key term here is *volatile,* and the Minnesota Department of Health has a nice, simple explanation:

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that evaporate easily at room temperature. The term “organic” indicates that the compounds contain carbon.

Why are VOCs bad for my health?
Since VOCs evaporate easily, they get into the air quickly and you breathe them in. In the short term, breathing them in can make asthma and allergies worse, trigger acute flares, and even irritate the ear, nose, and throat in non-asthmatics.

Over the long term, exposure to VOCs may actually cause asthma in some people and some VOCs are known to cause cancer.

What contains VOCs?
Here’s where it gets scary. VOCs are in all kinds of household products that seem innocuous. Here’s a very, very short list:

– Paint
– Commercial cleaners
– Air freshener
– Adhesives
– New carpet/flooring
– Perfume
– Cosmetics

Made the switch to a natural, sustainable, and/or organic lifestyle yet? Got a kid with asthma?

Here’s your reason to green:

The EPA estimates the indoor VOC load in most homes is up to ten times higher than outside. Young children and people with respiratory problems like asthma have the highest risk of health problems from VOC exposure, and no safety standard for household VOCs exists.

So asthma kids and VOCs? Not the greatest mix.

Wait. So All VOCs Are Toxic?
Not necessarily. Some VOCs, like benzene, are known to cause cancer in humans, but others have no known side effects. The problem with VOCs in general for asthmatics (beyond toxicity) comes from their role in forming ground-level ozone, a known trigger.

How Can I Avoid VOCs?
Lots of ways, from giving up artificially scented candles to using vinegar and baking soda to clean your house instead of commercial products. Choosing organic, all-natural formulations of products will help, too.


It gets a little trickier with asthma because even natural fragrances and solutions that don’t contain VOCs can trigger asthma flares. Simmering orange peels for DIY home fragrance is a popular eco-solution, for example, but lots of asthmatics can’t tolerate citrus oils. Check out these tips and links, but remember this key concept: just because something is natural doesn’t mean it won’t trigger your kid’s asthma, too.

Asthma Mom Tips – DIY Air Freshener
Asthma Mom Tips – Candles
CHEC – Avoiding Overexposure to Fragrances
Treehugger – Green Paint Alternatives
The Daily Green – Spring Cleaning Recipes

19 responses to “Reduce Indoor VOCs For Your Asthma Kids”

  1. Asthmagirl says:

    Geez… It’s like you wrote this with me in mind!

  2. Jen says:

    You wrote “…giving up unscented candles…” Should that be scented? Are unscented candles ok or is it best to avoid all candles altogether when asthma is a concern? Thanks for writing about this, I’ve been wondering about candles!

  3. Amy says:

    Jen–Yeah, that should’ve been “unscented.”

    (slaps forehead)

    Thanks for pointing that out so I can change it. If you click on that link for candles at the end, it will give you some guidelines for burning candles with asthma. In general, though, what I do is either burn unscented soy or beeswax ones or ones that are scented with essential oils and cotton wicks only.

    Those can still trigger people, of course, and especially depending on the scent, but my kid does just fine with them.

  4. Andie says:

    We are just finishing our basement now – not sure if we’ll get a chance to stay & enjoy it, or if we will be getting ready to sell (to move to a lower-cost area or to relocate). So, DH has been doing a lot of research to find low VOC paint and flooring, which is also affordable. That way, if we stay we can feel good about the basement. IF we move, we haven’t spent a fortune that we won’t recover. It sure takes time to do all the research!

  5. Farrah's Mum says:

    When my 4 year goes to spend the night with her grandparents I get very anxietal to begin with even though they are very aware of her asthma and follow to the letter her meds (we all know that’s not alway an exact science either)…But they just got a new kitchen, and it’s all varnished and newly painted. She goes in 3 days and it was painted a few days ago. My concern is that it will still be ‘fumey’. Am I just being overly neurotic (everyone makes me feel that way when I voice my conerns), or could the fumes actually still be an issue for her very sensitive condition? Thanks for any input, I love your site!

  6. Randi Lee says:

    Enjoyed the article! Other great ways to reduce everyday VOCs is to use house plants such as Spider Plants or PCO lighting such as WellnessLight Kids. A few extras bennies I learned with my kids that I like to share.

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