Not many people have heard of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). However, these gaseous pollutants can be harmful to everyone, especially if you have asthma or chemical sensitivity.
To make it worse, seemingly “clean” indoor air can contain levels of invisible toxic VOCs that are 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors, according to the EPA.
This article will discuss the main types of air purifiers and help you determine which is the best air purifier for VOCs in your home. However, before discussing your air purifier options, here is a bit of background into VOCs.
Read more about technology that can destroy VOCs and other pollutants.
- What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
- Which air purifier options are best for VOCs?
- The best air purifier for VOCs: Our recommendation
What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
Volatile organic compounds are a large group of chemicals primarily composed of carbon that easily evaporate into the air at room temperature. Some VOCs are harmless and are the source of pleasant plant-based smells such as citrus and pine. Others may be extremely harmful to the human body during serious exposure, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
You can find off-gassing of VOCs from everyday items in your home—from mattresses to furniture to personal care products—or the release of these chemicals during activities like cleaning, painting or remodeling. These invisible chemicals can be harmful to your health if left untackled.
Health effects of VOCs
Studies have suggested that when inhaled at high levels over an extended period of time, these toxic VOC molecules may enter the lungs, bloodstream and eventually the body’s soft tissues. This can potentially cause health problems such as headaches, nausea and liver damage. High exposure over hours or days may cause eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, and could make symptoms worse if you have asthma or a chemical sensitivity. Children and older adults are more at risk for symptoms from breathing in VOCs.
Even breathing low levels of VOCs, like those found in homes over long periods of time, may make health problems worse. These harmful VOCs often come from the everyday items found in your home, such as building materials, coatings, cleaning agents and personal care products. The most common toxic VOCs found in the home include benzene (paint), formaldehyde (carpets) and toluene (glue).
How are VOCs released into the air?
Typically, VOCs are released during a process known as off-gassing. This is when products release particulate matter and gases that were formerly trapped in a liquid or solid form. Off-gassed substances are often carcinogenic, or can react with other common air components to form known carcinogens.
If you would like to learn more about VOCs, then be sure to check out “The Where, Why, and What of Volatile Organic Compounds.”
What to do first if your indoor air has high levels of VOCs
Recent activities in your home or office, like renovation and painting, or the everyday sources from household cleaning products or cooking smoke, can produce high levels of VOCs. If you suspect that the air inside your home or office may be contaminated with harmful levels of VOCs, you should consider the following steps:
Step 1 – Identify and remove the source of the VOCs
The first and best step is always to investigate and focus on removing the source of the VOCs from your environment, or leave the environment until any off-gassing subsides. That might mean removing carpets, furniture, adhesives or leaving the room ventilated and not re-entering until the VOC concentration has reduced.
Step 2 – Improve the ventilation in the room
If you cannot find or remove the source of the VOCs, then you should look for ways to increase the level of ventilation in the room whilst you sort a more permanent solution to the problem.
This may be as easy as opening a window (unless the outdoor air is heavily polluted), or you might need to install a vent to allow fresh air to circulate in the room. This can keep the concentration of VOCs from building up indoors and decrease them to more normal levels.
Step 3 – Use an air purifier
If you or a family member are especially sensitive to VOCs, merely improving the level of ventilation may not be enough. Everyday household items and materials can off-gas VOCs over a long period of time. Even popular consumer products that range from electronics to makeup may have been manufactured with these chemicals. You may not be able to smell them in every case, and so odor is not a reliable indicator of the presence of VOCs in your home. If a member of your household has asthma or suffers from chemical sensitivity, even a low concentration of VOCs in the air can cause very unpleasant symptoms. In cases like these, you should definitely consider using an air purifier designed to remove VOCs from the air.
As you are reading this article, are you wondering which type of air purifier is best for removing VOCs?
Which air purifier options are best for VOCs?
There are numerous types of air purifiers on the market, each using different technologies to filter the air. However, some air purifiers are not able to remove volatile organic compounds from the air, or can even make the problem worse.
First, you should know which air purification technologies cannot deal with VOCs effectively.
Can electrostatic or ozone technology remove VOCs?
Electrostatic air purifiers capture particulates (solid particles and liquid droplets) by using an electrically charged screen or panel. However, they cannot remove gaseous molecules like VOCs, only larger particulates such as dander, dust and mold.
Ozone generators actively release harmful ozone into the air as a method of air purification. Ozone is essentially oxygen (O2) with an extra oxygen atom attached (O3). When ozone interacts with other molecules (from mold, smoke, etc.), the extra oxygen atom attaches itself to them at the molecular level, changing them into different, sometimes more dangerous molecules.
While ozone can destroy cell walls and effectively kill biological cells, research has shown that ozone is not effective at removing VOCs from the air. Not only that, ozone can forcefully remove trapped VOCs from objects, releasing them into the environment. What is worse is that ozone is harmful to the human body if inhaled. As a result of these side effects, you should not use ozone generators as an air purifier in your home. There are much more effective and much safer options available to you.
Can HEPA filters remove VOCs?
HEPA filters are perhaps the most common type of air purifier on the market. They are designed to, trap harmful particulates in their fibers as the air passes through the filter. Though they should trap pollutants that are 0.3 micrometers or larger at an efficiency of 99.97%, many pollutants are much smaller. VOCs, because they are gases, are about 1000 times smaller than what HEPA filters can capture.
Additionally, VOCs do not stick to HEPA filters, so they are unable to deal with any that might be present in the air. Instead, look for additional technology like carbon or PECO that is partnered with the HEPA filter.
Can Photochemical Oxidation (PCO) filters remove VOCs?
Photochemical oxidation filters, or PCO filters, use UV-C light to clean the air of pollutants. In certain circumstances, PCO filters may break down certain toxic VOCs; however, they require that they expose pollutants to intense UV-C light to break them down slowly over time. This makes PCO filters ineffective and inefficient. Additionally, UV-C light produces ozone which is itself an air pollutant as described previously.
Now that you are familiar with the types of air purification technologies that cannot effectively remove VOCs from the air, here are those that are designed to do so.
In reality, you only have two options: carbon filters or PECO air purifiers.
Can carbon filters remove VOCs effectively?
Carbon filters are specifically designed to remove gaseous elements from the air and may effectively remove volatile organic compounds in the short term. However, it is possible that some of these gases can release back into the air because of the science behind the technology.
Carbon air filters remove pollutants from the air with a process known as ad-sorption, not ab-sorption. The key difference here is that during adsorption, the pollutants stick to the outside of the tiny carbon particles in the filter’s adsorption bed. Whereas with absorption, the pollutants are held inside the structure itself – as with a sponge.
The process of adsorption allows carbon air filters to filter airborne chemicals (gases) from the air. Typically, these filters use activated carbon (charcoal, etc.) in the adsorption bed, which is full of tiny holes that create a very large surface area for pollutants to stick to.
However, there are two problems with activated carbon filters that you should be aware of:
- Over time, the surface area of the activated carbon fills up and becomes saturated, meaning that the filter can no longer trap pollutants. In this situation, the filter will stop removing VOCs from the air and can even begin to release VOCs it has trapped back into the air. As a result, it is vital that you change your carbon filter regularly to avoid off-gassing.
- The second problem carbon filters face is that their ability to absorb and store pollutants is highly dependent on the humidity and ambient temperature of the room. Water molecules compete for space in the adsorption bed and could kick out the VOCs already there, and heat may cause the VOCs to revert back to a gas. As a result, if you were to open a window in the room or turn on the heating it could cause the carbon to start releasing VOCs it has previously trapped back into the air.
How does a new technology (PECO) deal with VOCs?
Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO) is a clean air technology developed by Dr. Yogi Goswami and later commercialized as the Molekule air purifier. The technology can eliminate volatile organic compounds in the air. Unlike a carbon filter, the PECO technology destroys VOCs passing through the filter, instead of merely collecting them (as is the case when gases temporarily stick to a carbon filter). Thus with the PECO technology, there is no risk of these gases being released back into the air because of filter saturation, or because of a change in the temperature or humidity (among other environmental conditions) in your home.
The Photo Electrochemical Oxidation process happens when light shines onto a filter coated with a catalyst, beginning a catalytic reaction that destroys VOCs at the molecular level. The University of Minnesota Particle Calibration Laboratory verified the effectiveness of the technology in an independent lab test. The results showed that the PECO technology reduced VOCs in the air down to undetectable levels. The test also showed that no ozone was created during the process; in fact, artificially created ozone levels were reduced by the PECO technology during the experiment.
To learn more about the science behind the Molekule PECO technology vs. VOCs, see this link.
The best air purifier for VOCs: Our recommendation
After considering the types of air purification above, it is clear that you only have two viable options for removing unwanted volatile organic compounds in the air: carbon air filtration or PECO technology.
The most important question for you is: Which one should I choose for my home or office?
The answer to this question depends on the circumstances in which you plan to use the air purifier.
If you need a large amount of VOCs “soaked” up quickly, then using a carbon air filter (with a heavy weight of carbon) may be an acceptable option in some situations. Carbon air filters can capture a lot of VOCs quickly if the airflow rate through the filter is high enough. This makes carbon filters a decent option for short-term situations where you need to quickly “soak” up a lot of VOCs. Examples of such situations would include a sudden influx of wildfire smoke in your area, or if your home or office was very recently remodeled and the initial fumes cannot be ventilated. However, you need to remember that off-gassing can happen at any time, and you should change the carbon filters regularly in these situations.
If you need a long-term solution for everyday off-gassing and immediate VOC problems, then using a Molekule air purifier is your best option. The PECO technology inside the Molekule air purifier can significantly reduce everyday concentrations of household VOCs, as well as sudden spikes in VOC levels, by destroying these airborne chemicals at the molecular level. This means there is no risk of the filter releasing VOCs back into the environment (as is the case with carbon filtration) when it is full, or when the temperature or humidity change in your home. Not only can the Molekule PECO technology destroy VOCs in the air, it can also eliminate particulates such as dander, mold, dust or bacteria.
If you are looking for a versatile air purifier that removes a wide range harmful pollutants from the air, then you should consider using a Molekule air purifier.
Though carbon air filtration may sometimes be an acceptable short-term solution, the Molekule PECO technology offers a powerful, long-term solution that has been independently tested for its effectiveness against VOCs. The Molekule air purifier can destroy VOCs in the air during sudden spikes in VOC concentrations, as well as everyday off-gassing, making it a more permanent solution for clean air in your home.