Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Ozone, and Children's Eyes

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 26, 2010
5 min read

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.

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

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 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.

It's not hard to lower the levels of VOCs, and every bit makes a difference. Here are some tips.

House Cleaning

  • Choose safer cleaners. Powerful cleaners are a common source of VOCs. Consider gentler, unscented products. "Natural" isn't always better. "People might assume that pine and citrus cleaners are a good choice," says Lunder, "but they give off VOCs."
  • If you have carpets, don't use chemical carpet cleaners. You might worry about the dirt trapped in your kids' playroom carpet. But using a chemical carpet cleaner might only replace the dirt with something worse -- like powerful chemical solvents, similar to the ones used in dry cleaning.
    Lunder recommends sticking with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter to catch irritants and allergens. If that's not enough, consider using a steam cleaning machine with water and no detergent.
  • Ask about cleaning techniques at daycare or school. Your home is not the only place that your child will be exposed to VOCs, Lunder says. Think about possible exposure at daycare, preschool, or school. Ask the teachers how the facility is cleaned and what products they use. If they're not using gentle cleaners, see if a switch is possible -- and make sure that most of the cleaning is done after the kids are gone.

Home Improvement and Furnishings

  • Be careful during renovations. Consider VOC and ozone exposure before you start renovating your home. While paint was once a common source of VOCs, it's a lot easier to find other options these days. Any paint store should stock low or no-VOC paint.
  • Avoid carpeting if you can. Think twice before replacing that carpet in the playroom. Carpets and the glue used to fix them to the floor are a common source of VOCs. Consider going without if you can. There are additional health advantages, since carpets can trap allergens and irritants.
    Worried your floor looks too bare? "Think about getting a few rugs that are 100% natural fiber, like wool," says Ogden. "You really want rugs that you can wash."
  • Balance energy efficiency with air quality. There's a downside to our current fixation with well-insulated, energy-efficient homes. "The tighter the home, the worse the ventilation," Lunder tells WebMD. "VOCs can get trapped inside." Before you caulk every window and door, consider the importance of ventilation, too.
  • Say no to stain guards. When you're buying a new couch and have young and accident-prone kids in the house, the optional stain guard is tempting. But Lunder recommends going without it. The potent chemicals in stain guards can cause skin, airway, and eye irritation. Instead, choose a color that will hide a decade's worth of future juice spills.
  • Choose genuine wood furniture. Buying furniture for your child's room? The prices on a bookcase or shelving unit might look appealing, but consider what that furniture is made of. Cheap particle board might emit VOCs for weeks or months. Your best bet is furniture that's made of solid hardwood. If not, use a low-VOC sealant on any furniture that might be giving off VOCs.
  • Watch outdoor ozone levels. Outdoor ozone can be a real problem for some kids. Many communities issue "ozone alerts" when levels are dangerously high. On hot summer days with high ozone, it might be best to keep a child with allergies or asthma indoors.
  • Choose air purifiers carefully. Some air purifiers "clean" the air by emitting a lot of ozone into your house. California has banned these devices because of their health risks, but they're still widely available elsewhere. While all air cleaners give off small amounts of ozone, check with the manufacturer to make sure that any air cleaner system has an acceptable level of ozone byproduct.
  • Ventilate. Remember, it's not just the VOCs and ozone -- it's the concentration of the gases. When you're using any product that might give off VOCs, make sure that you open the window, Lunder says. If you have sources of VOCs in the home that you can't easily remove, use fans and keep a window cracked open to keep air circulating throughout the house.