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Does your child have red, irritated eyes? It could be the result of exposure to VOCs -- volatile organic compounds -- and ozone from common household products.

"VOCs really are everywhere," says Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington D.C. They're inside your house and outside it. They're in cleaners, solvents, paints, furniture, carpets, and outdoor pollution.

VOCs are a common cause of airway and eye irritation in children. What's more, they can generate the gas ozone. While ozone helps shield the earth from ultraviolet rays when it’s high in the atmosphere, down near the ground it can do real harm.

While banning VOCs from your home completely isn't possible, there's a lot you can do to reduce your child's exposure. Here's how.

How Do VOCs Affect Us?

VOCs are common chemical compounds; some occur naturally, and others made by people. While "organic" is in the name, this is not the sort of "organic" like the organic broccoli that your preschooler won't eat. Instead, "organic" here just refers to how these compounds are classified by chemists.

VOCs can have a serious impact on the air quality in your home. Studies have found that indoor air can be up to 10 times worse than outdoor air. VOCs are a large part of the problem. When some VOCs are combined with sunlight, they form ozone -- a gas that's a major component of smog.

What are the health effects of VOCs and ozone? They may cause

  • Eye irritation -- redness, itchiness, and tearing
  • Cough
  • Worsening allergy and asthma symptoms
  • Headache

One compounding problem is that VOCs and ozone can become concentrated in your home, says Lunder. Outside, pollutants have a whole atmosphere to disperse into. Inside -- where we spend about 90% of their lives -- those gases can get trapped and stick around.

Kids and VOCs

Kids are especially vulnerable to the effects of VOCs and ozone because of their size and developing bodies, experts say.

"Kids are close to the ground," says Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician and author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. "They're in contact with chemicals on the floor, or the carpet, or furniture." They're always sticking their fingers in their eyes and mouths, and in the process transferring any chemical residue they pick up. And proportionately, kids breathe in more air per minute than adults.

Unfortunately, many well-meaning parents wind up exposing their kids to high levels of VOCs. If you're furnishing a playroom for your preschooler or setting up a nursery for your newborn, that's just when you might unintentionally release VOCs into your home, says Neeta Ogden, MD, an allergist in Closter, N.J.

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