Understanding VOCs - Volatile Organic Compounds

Household cleaners are not usually thought of as pollutants. They are used inside the confines of the home to make the indoor environment safe and clean for human habitation. Many household cleaners are effective at ridding the home of dirt, germs and other microscopic, harmful organisms. However, most grocery store brand cleaners that are used to sanitize, degrease, whiten and wash clothing, surfaces, dishes and bedding contain VOCs and are also harming our water, air, our planet and our health.

The Chemical Culprits

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency names phosphorus, nitrogen, ammonia and chemicals grouped under the term "Volatile Organic Compounds" as the worst environmental hazards in household cleaners. According to the Canadian Labour Environmental Alliance Society, dishwasher detergents are 30 to 40 percent phosphorus.  Ammonia is a multipurpose household cleaner that is found in many cleaning products that do everything from degreasing to sanitizing and removing allergens. VOCs are found in a wide range of cleaning products. They whiten your clothes, remove grease from dishes and disinfect as bathroom cleaners, among other uses. Nitrogen is found in glass and surface cleaning products; this chemical is found in floor cleaners as well.

Entering the Waterways

Nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia are dangerous water contaminants in large quantities. They are rinsed down drains and flushed down toilets as families clean the house. Most pollutants are removed from the water by the waste treatment facilities before the water is returned to the rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways. However, those three household cleaning chemicals are not removed by waste treatment processes. Instead, they enter the waterways and build up, causing an accelerated growth of some types of plant life.

Chemical Effects in the Water

Ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus are all fertilizers used in agriculture to help plants grow in controlled environments on farms. When those same chemicals enter a freshwater environment as residues of household cleaning, their levels are not controlled. The result is excessive nourishment of some types of plant life in habitats native to aquatic animals. This can lead to dense vegetation that clogs waterways, crowding out animal life and other marine plants. At the end of these plants' chemical-accelerated life cycle, they die in large masses, decaying and depleting the oxygen in the water. Algae then grows, and the animals – freshwater shellfish, fish and others – die off as well; the die-offs cause more decay.

Air Contamination

VOCs can cause health hazards by concentrating inside the household air, and when windows are raised to ventilate while cleaning, the problem goes outdoors. Household chemicals are made of ingredients that can be harmful or life threatening upon skin contact or ingestion. Bleach and ammonia in various cleaning products can pose respiratory health problems with excessive exposure. Some toxic household substances can cause birth defects, brain damage, coma, or death. Common household chemicals are also linked to many common health problems such as headaches, joint pain, loss of sleep, asthma, allergies, and depression.

What We Can Do About It

But I can’t save the world on my own! Of course you can’t. Nobody can, and that is not the point of this article. If one single person changes their cleaning products, uses less products, less chemicals and makes sure to use only eco-friendly cleaning solutions, the impact will be minimal. But it will be less chemicals and less harm to the environment, than it would otherwise have been. And if more people do the same, if we change our way of using cleaning products as a society, we can have a huge positive impact on our environment, our homes, our planet and our health.

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."

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