What are VOCs?
VOCs (Short for Volatile Organic Compounds) refers to chemical substances that are commonly found in indoor air. They can be emitted through a process known as off-gassing from many common household items and consumer products including processed wood, carpet fabric, sofa materials, cleaning products, freshly painted walls, new cushions, and mattresses. VOCs are potentially harmful. They are known to cause Sick Building Syndrome and Building Related Illnesses. Some VOCs are also endocrine disrupting chemicals, which means they can cause a wide array of diseases and conditions. As a new mum, you should take steps to limit your baby’s exposure to VOCs because newborns and infants are more susceptible to the negative effects of VOCs.
Where do VOCs come from?
Carpet fabrics, mattresses, and even car seats are known to emit VOCs such as benzene, acetaldehyde, toluene, and formaldehyde, all of which have negative health effects in humans and pets. In a study carried out at the University of Texas, 20 mattresses made of polyurethane and polyester were tested for VOC emission. researchers found that all the mattresses produced VOCs and that new mattresses produced up to 4 times more VOCs (in terms of volume) than older mattresses. The mattresses that were tested in the study came from 10 different manufacturers, which means that the presence of VOCs in mattress and cushion foams is an industry wide problem.
This problem isn’t just limited to items inside the house. Remember that new car smell that you like so much? Well, as it turns out, that’s the smell of a collection of over 60 VOCs that are emitted from materials and fabrics in the car.
Why your newborn is more susceptible to VOCs
Compared to adults and older children, infants are more likely to be exposed to VOCs, and they are also more likely to be harmed as a result of exposure to VOCs with endocrine disruption properties. For starters, almost every parent buys a new mattress for their baby’s crib, and as we’ve mentioned, new mattresses emit more VOCs than older ones. Secondly, babies sleep more than adults, which means that they spend more time near mattresses that emit VOCs. Its estimated that infants sleep for 50 to 60 percent of the day, meaning they spend more than 12 hours every day breathing in VOC fumes from new mattresses. Thirdly, infants take in higher volumes of air per unit body weight, which means they are prone to more inhalation exposure compared to adults within the same environment.
VOCs are dangerous for all humans, but their effects are more pronounced in newborns. If your baby is exposed to VOCs, especially those with hormone-disrupting properties, (s)he could suffer from respiratory complications or allergic reactions. Prolonged exposure to VOCs and EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) has been linked to neurodevelopmental issues, childhood obesity, asthma, and other conditions. Mothers who are exposed to VOCs with hormone-disrupting properties are more likely to bear children with birth defects. It’s therefore important that if you are a new mother (or a soon-to-be new mum), you should take steps to eradicate the VOCs in your home and your environment in general.
How you can limit your new baby’s exposure to VOCs
Airing out your house regularly will be helpful as will airing out offending furniture or furnishings outdoors for as long as you can, ideally for a few weeks, before bringing them into the house. The rate of off-gassing will be highest when the item is new and then will gradually taper off over time. Good ventilation is always the easiest and most effective solution to reduce exposure to off-gassing chemicals, unless of course you are in a city that has a high degree of air pollution, like Mumbai for example.
One easy way to eliminate VOCs is by using sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and similar compounds. Baking soda reacts with some VOCs to produce carbon dioxide. You can sprinkle baking soda onto new carpets and mattresses before cleaning them with a vacuum. If the fabric allows it, you can use a hard brush to apply baking soda onto a carpet, sofa or mattress, allow it to sit for a while, the clean it off.
Another solution is to use certain houseplants. According to a study carried out by NASA, some houseplants have the ability to purify indoor air by removing VOCs. You can put these plants around your house or close to sources of VOCs in your home. However, if you own pets be careful when selecting your air purifying plants because a few species are toxic to pets.
You can also get a good quality air cleaner and install it in your home. Air cleaners (also called air filers or air purifiers) are very effective in extracting VOCs from ambient air. You have to remember to replace the filters in your air cleaner as often as necessary to ensure that it keeps functioning optimally.