VOCs, otherwise known as Volatile Organic Compounds, are chemical compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen. They are the “toxic” fumes sometimes experienced when you install new carpet and other soft furnishings, paint you house, polish your nails or buy new clothes. At room temperature, these VOCs are released into the air causing a gas which usually has a strong odour. Is this gas harmful to our health and what, if anything can we do to ensure our safety when we install new carpet?
While there are no health studies on the health implications of long term exposure to VOCs, the short term effects experienced by many people indicate there is need for further research. Some of the short term effects of being exposed to VOCs include dizziness, headaches, nausea, shortness of breath and skin and throat irritations. The effects vary from person to person depending on their gender, age, general health condition and the length of exposure. Some studies involving mice, have indicated that long term, high level exposure to VOCs can cause liver and kidney damage as well as increase the risk of cancer. It is not known if the same results apply to humans, however given the short term effects, it is wise to be cautious when dealing with VOCs. The EPA does recommend minimising exposure to VOCs.
In terms of carpet VOCs, most of the dangerous compounds are destroyed during the manufacturing process, however there will be some low level emissions when you install new carpet in your home. It is not only the carpet which emits VOCs, but also the underlay and the adhesive used to lay the carpet. Carpet, however has one of the lowest emission rates of VOCs when compared to other floor coverings.
Currently there are no regulations set by the Australian Government in regards to safe levels of VOC emissions and there is no single authority which oversees all air quality issues, Australia wide. State organisations do however offer guidelines, to minimise the impact of VOCs on our health. One such organisation is the Australian Carpet institute, which sets standards for carpet manufacturing, emission levels and carpet labelling. Another organisation which also plays a part in regulating VOC levels, is the Green Building Council of Australia.
These organsiations recommend that you ensure good ventilation when using or installing products and materials which emit VOCs. Ventilation means bringing in air from outside to mix with the indoor air and can be as simple as opening lots of windows or running your air conditioning/ventilation system for a few days and staying out of the rooms for as long as possible. It is recommended that when choosing your new carpet, looking for a “green” label carpet, means less VOCs. Natural fibres such as wool also produce fewer VOCs than synthetic carpets and make sure the installer uses low emission underlay and adhesive.
Once you have installed your new carpet, it is recommended that you have it professionally cleaned using the hot water extraction method (steam cleaning) and low VOC cleaning products. Once the VOCs have dissipated, it is important to remember that carpet acts like an air filter and traps dirt, dust and VOCs from other sources. Therefore it is very important to vacuum your carpet regularly and have it professionally cleaned at least once every 6-12 months.