Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are organic compounds that exist in the air in gas form and are emitted by certain liquids or solids. VOCs can have both long-term and short-term impacts on a person’s health, and they can also damage the environment. VOCs tend to be more common indoors than outdoors, with a concentration of VOCs sometimes being up to five times higher in indoor air. What are the primary sources of VOCs? How can VOCs be controlled so that they do less damage to people’s health and the environment?
Sources of Volatile Organic Compounds
Research done by the EPA shows that levels of volatile organic compounds tend to be approximately two to five times higher inside the home rather than outside. This is true regardless of the location of the home, so it doesn’t matter if the home is located in an industrialized or rural area. This is because many organic compounds are found in common household products. Some of the primary sources of volatile organic compounds include household products like cleaning chemicals, preservatives, and paint.
“The EPA states that some of the most common household products, including aerosol sprays, disinfectants and cleaners, automotive products, paints and solvents, and pesticide, can all contain high levels of VOCs,” says Camfil’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant. “One of the most common kinds of VOCs is formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a strong smelling but colorless gas frequently found in various construction materials like particleboard and plywood.” (1)
VOCs are also released by equipment more likely to be found inside an office building than a residence, such as printers, copiers, carbon copy paper, photographic solutions, and glues and adhesives. Different kinds of fuel, such as kerosene and gas, are also large sources of VOCs.
Health Impacts of Volatile Organic Compounds
As with any chemical, the health impacts of volatile organic compounds depends on the concentrations of the compound in the air and how long a person breathes the air. It’s believed that exposure to low levels of VOCs over long periods of time increases a person’s risk for a variety of different health problems.
“Short-term exposure to VOCs can cause irritation of the eyes, throat, and nose as well as headaches, nausea, and loss of coordination. Continued exposure to VOCs has been correlated with damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver,” explains Seyffer. “Continuous exposure to VOCs has the potential to exacerbate symptoms of asthma, particularly in those who are already sensitive to certain chemicals.” (2)
Chronic exposure to VOCs has the potential to cause cancer. Both benzene and formaldehyde are recognized as carcinogens, and so are the VOCs released by diesel exhaust.
Most studies on the health effects of exposure to VOCs are done on how exposure to a single chemical can affect a person’s health, fewer studies have been done about the possible effects of exposure to combinations of chemicals. Because of this, and because there are no federal health standards for VOC levels in the home, it is important to try and limit exposure to VOCs whenever possible.
Environmental Impacts of Volatile Organic Compounds
The environmental impact of volatile organic compounds depends upon the specific compound released into the air. The EPA classifies a wide range of VOCs but notes that only some VOCs are in immediate danger to outdoor air quality. If a VOC is reactive enough, it will create smog in the atmosphere.
“Photochemical smog is created primarily by the formation of ozone, and many different VOCs form the basis of ground-level ozone,” says Seyffer. “These VOCs react in the presence of sunlight with other chemicals that act as sources of oxygen molecules, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, forming O3 or ozone.” (3)
The smog created through VOCs can accumulate within cities leading to hazardous outdoor air quality which impairs vision and negatively affects the health of citizens living in the cities. Smog also contributes to climate change through the greenhouse effect.
Protecting Yourself from the Impacts of Volatile Organic Compounds
Protecting yourself from the impacts of volatile organic compounds is achieved by limiting exposure to VOCs. This is done through a combination of methods, such as ensuring adequate ventilation when using cleaning chemicals that contain VOCs, properly storing paints and solvents, and always following the directions on the label of a potentially hazardous product.
You should always be sure to precisely follow the instructions on products that contain VOCs. Very frequently these products will come with an instruction to use them in a well-ventilated area. If this is the case, you should open up windows, turn on exhaust fans, or go outdoors to use the product. You should also be sure to properly store and dispose of containers of hazardous products.
Hazardous products should be kept in a well-ventilated area, out of the reach of children, and in limited quantities. If your community has a special way of disposing of toxic chemicals, be sure to follow those regulations.
Formaldehyde is a common VOC that can usually be distinguished by its distinct smell, identity and, if possible, remove the source of formaldehyde. If removal is not possible, (for instance, it is emitting from wall panels), reduce exposure to it – in this case by sealing cracks in the panels.
“Be sure you take extra precautions to limit exposure to carcinogens like benzene, methylene chloride, and perchloroethylene,” says Seyffer. “Methylene chloride is typically found in paint strippers and adhesives, benzenes are found in tobacco smoke and paint supplies, and perchloroethylene is found in emissions from materials that have been newly dry-cleaned.”
It is extremely important to limit the emission of VOCs, as it impacts both the health of your family and the health of the environment.
One of the best ways to defend against the impacts of volatile organic compounds is to ensure adequate indoor air quality through a properly installed HVAC system with high-efficiency filters. Contact Camfil today for tips to ensure your HVAC system is functioning properly, and to purchase high-efficiency filters.