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Volatile Organic Compounds seems to be a catch-all phrase describing a variety of organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at room temperature.

Many sources for parenting, expectant parents, and sites about baby health warn about the dangers of using VOC paints, and some make some seemingly extraordinary claims.

While it seems plausible that exposure to VOCs while pregnant could increase the chances of birth defect, I have trouble with the following claims:

This site claims:

What most of us didn’t know until recently was that we’re inhaling our paint for years to come. We know to get the lead out, we know that you should use a low VOC paint formula but there’s a lot you don’t know. Paints traditionally have been made into two parts, one part (microscopic) plastic balls and the other is a solvent that makes those plastic balls malleable so they stick to the walls. The solvents are chock full of VOCs and they become a part of your indoor air quality for a good six years.

This one goes so far as to say:

That new paint or freshly laid carpet smell is actually toxic. The fumes are part of a wide range of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, commonly called VOCs. These chemicals, present in products such as building materials and furniture, slowly enter the air in a process known as outgassing. As the product ages, outgassing decreases, though temperature and humidity affects the rate. Other products, such as carpets, collect VOCs and re-release them into the air.

and

Infants are highly susceptible to VOCs because they breathe more rapidly than adults to compensate for their smaller lungs. Consequently, they breathe in more air. With their nervous and respiratory systems not yet fully developed, babies cannot filter out airborne toxins as well as adults. Infants spend over 90 percent of their time indoors, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollution is two to five times higher than air pollutants outdoors.

They also blame carpets as a major source of VOC risk:

Carpets are one of the worst culprits in harboring chemicals. Off gassing is highest in the first few months after installation, and release trace amounts of VOCs up to five years later.

As well as crib mattresses:

...Many of these chemicals, associated with asthma, hyperactivity and cancer, easily leech into the air and into baby's lungs. If your only option is a standard mattress, air it out for a few weeks in a well-ventilated room. Simply smelling the mattress will give you a good indication of the level of outgassing.

My question: Is there any evidence to support significant health risk to infants from exposure to the levels of VOCs that you would expect to find from:

  • Paint that has thoroughly dried before the baby is introduced to the environment
  • Crib mattresses
  • Carpet, either from its own VOC content or from VOC absorbed from other sources (e.g. paint)
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes.

From Diez, et al(2000):

Correlations between VOC exposures and infections were calculated by multiple logistic regression. Selected VOC show a direct association to actually painted dwellings (OR 2.4; 95% Cl 1.1-5.3). An increase of risk of pulmonary infections was observed in infants aged 6 weeks if restoration (painting OR 5.6; 95% Cl 1.3-24.0) or flooring connected with painting had occurred during the pregnancy period. Higher concentration of styrene (>2.0 µg/m3, indicator for flooring) elevated the risk of pulmonary infections in six-week-old infants (OR 2.1; 95% Cl 1.1-4.2). Environmental benzene >5.6µg/m3 increased the risk of airway infections in six-week-old babies (OR 2.4; 95% Cl 1.28-4.48). Smoking in the dwelling (OR 2.0; 95% Cl 1.1-3.5) as well as restoration (OR 1.9; 95% Cl 1.1-3.5) are also risk factors of the development of wheezing in the one-year-old child

Paints which have dried will still emit VOC's continuously, as do carpets, wallpaper glues, and treated flooring (and subflooring). If the objects are exposed to sunlight, they will emit higher levels of chemicals.

(For further reading you could look up specific emission rates for the desired object)

The biggest way to combat poor indoor air is to ventilate. You'll never be able to rid your house of VOC's, but you can lessen their impact by ensuring you refresh the air often.

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Given that poor ventilation is strongly related to respiratory problems it might no be the VOCs that caused the observations. I don't know whether the study corrected for this. And the confidence intervals are wide enough to doubt the study results without many repetitions from other researchers. –  matt_black Apr 5 '12 at 11:58
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There are plenty of other studies which link IAQ to adverse health effects such as asthma, etc in children. Beofett wanted something specific to infants. –  Darwy Apr 5 '12 at 20:21
    
I'm skeptical about that last sentence. Why can't you rid your house of VOCs? –  trav1s Jul 30 '13 at 6:44
    
@trav1s You cannot rid your house of VOCs because it will be constantly emitting them. Paints, wallpaper pastes, flooring, subflooring, furniture - even some of your clothes (when new) - all emit VOCs. Short of tearing down your house, there will always be some portion or surface in your house which will emit VOCs. –  Darwy Aug 24 '13 at 13:20
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