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Volatile Organic Compounds

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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that enter the air in gaseous form easily from liquids or solids. They comprise a wide range of carbon-based chemicals that evaporate easily at room temperature. Generally, VOCs are commonly used and some VOC chemicals are always found floating in indoor air. The Department of Health in New York State and other agencies have conducted studies on typical VOC levels present in outdoor and indoor air. At times, these levels are known as “background levels” which varies depending on the area where air samples are collected and whether the VOCs were actually stored or used. For instance, a VOC study in urban areas is likely to show higher levels of VOCS compared to a study conducted in a rural set up. Some studied focus on residential environments while others focus on office setups.

Sources of VOCs

VOCs comprise ingredients found in commonly used products and can be found within almost every indoor setting. VOCs are emitted by a broad range of products including lacquers and paints, cleaning supplies, furnishings, air fresheners, building materials, paint strippers, office equipment like printers and copiers, pesticides, correction liquids, carbonless copy papers, craft and graphic materials like adhesives and glues, photographic solutions and permanent markers. Organic chemicals are mostly used as ingredients for household products. Organic solvents are found in numerous cleaning, cosmetic, disinfecting, and degreasing products. Organic chemicals are also found in fuels. Organic compounds are released from products during usage or during storage and can have short term as well as long term health effects. Generally, concentration level of most VOCs is significantly higher, up to 10 times higher, in indoor settings than in outdoor settings. Though most people are able to detect high levels of volatile organic compounds through their sense of smell, some organic compounds are odorless. Odor does not necessarily reflect the risk level of inhaling organic chemicals. Numerous kinds of VOCs, thousands of them are developed and used in our day to day lives. Some common VOCs are Acetone, Ethylene glycol, Benzene, Formaldehyde, Toluene, Methylene Chloride, Xylene and 1,3-butadiene.

Emission of Volatile Organic Compounds into Indoor Settings

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Products that contain VOCs can release chemicals when being used or during storage. Most of time, this goes unnoticed unless the product has an odor. However, the product label will often have a list of VOC ingredients that the product has and recommend usage in well ventilated places. Ventilation is important in terms of allowing fresh air into indoor settings so that outdoor air mixes well with indoor air. Furnishings like new furniture or carpets and other building materials often release VOCs into indoor settings slowly over time. It is important to ensure that there is good ventilation in places with new furniture or carpeting for a longer time since VOC levels are capable of building up again once the windows are closed. Where possible unroll new carpets or keep furniture in a shed outside the house to reduce VOC related odor prior to bringing them into the home. Where this is not possible, keep the windows open, close the doors and keep off the room until the odors have reduced.

Where products that contain VOC are in use in outdoors places close to a home, it is recommended that windows of the home and other ventilations remain closed to prevent VOC chemicals from finding their way into the home. VOCs are also capable of getting into indoor air through groundwater or contaminated soils beneath buildings. These chemicals get into the building through openings on slabs or basements or cracks. Indoor VOC levels increase then reduce over time when usage is stopped. The duration of time that these chemicals remain in the air largely depends on how fast fresh air gets in to the room as well as the quantity of chemical that was used. Generally, VOCs reduce fast when doors or windows are opened or exhaust fans are used.

VOCs in Water

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Though the primary way of VOCs exposure is inhalation, VOCs may also be ingested in water and food. Once they are released, VOCs move through the environment easily and can seep in to the soil and find their way to the ground water. VOCs are not present in drinking water whose source is surface water such as streams, reservoirs and lakes due to their ability to evaporate in to the air. However, currently there are 23 compounds present in drinking water that are regulated as VOCs. 8 of these compounds have the potential to cause cancer and are classified as human carcinogens or possible carcinogens.

Health Risks associated with VOC Exposure

VOCs are known to have health effects on people as a result exposure. VOC exposure occurs in three major ways namely touching, breathing and ingestion. The health effect of VOCs that a person is exposed to largely depends on the toxicity of the chemical.

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The extent of these health effects also depends of levels of VOC in the air, duration of exposure as well as frequency of exposure. Scientists review the short-term acute effects on health following exposures that occur for hours or days as well as the long-term chronic effects following years or life exposures. Inhaling low VOC levels for prolonged periods of time can increase the risk of health effects for some people. Some studies have suggested that VOC exposure can cause symptoms of asthma to worsen and is more risky among persons with chemical sensitivity. Since VOC is a group of chemicals, each chemical in the grown has its own toxicity level and potential to cause varying health effects.

Some common short-term symptoms of high level VOC exposure include throat, eye and nose irritation, vomiting and nausea, headaches, worsening asthma symptoms and dizziness. Long-term exposure to high VOC levels can lead to liver damage, cancer, damage of the Central Nervous System and kidney damage. The best way to protect ourselves against these health effects is to limit exposure to materials or products that contain VOCs. There are studies conducted on single VOC chemicals and little is known about health effects that result from exposure to sets of combined chemicals. Since toxic levels of VOCs vary from one chemical to another, there are no federal health standards for VOCs as a group. Generally, people with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chemical sensitivity are more prone to irritation and other VOC illnesses. Young children and the elderly are also susceptible to irritation and illnesses.

Managing VOC Levels in Homes

The best way of managing VOC levels in homes is to get rid of products that emit these chemicals. Most products that contain VOCs tend to off-gas over a short period of time though some tend to continue producing VOCs over a longer period. Here are some practical steps that you can take to lower VOC exposure in your home:

  1. Control the Source

Reduce or remove some of the products that produce VOC in your home. Opt to purchase quantities of chemicals that you can spend fast and follow the instructions on product labels carefully. Also, do away with chemicals that are no longer in use in the home because chemicals that are stored in sealed containers can leak and release VOCs at times. Check with your county or city for collection sites of household hazardous waste. When buying new items opt for floor models kept in stores that allow them to off-gas, solid items that have low emitting finishes or new products that are eco-friendly or contain low VOC levels.

  1. Use Airtight Sealers

Airtight sealers are known to reduce VOC emissions. Ask vendors dealing in composite wood products to help you choose a sealant that is non-toxic to lower your exposure to VOCs. Store the products in original, tightly sealed contains in a well-ventilated, secure area. Where possible, keep the products in areas where people spend less time such as outdoor sheds or garage.

  1. Climate control and Ventilation

Reduce VOC exposure by increasing ventilation in your home through the use of fans and opening windows or doors to maximize on the amount of air that gets in from outside. Chemicals tend to off-gas more when the conditions are warm and humid to maintain temperatures and humidity levels in the home low or comfortable. Also, consider renovating the home during seasons that allow additional ventilation or when nobody is occupying the house.

  1. Use VOCs in Outdoors

When you need to use products that contain VOCs do so in well-ventilated places or outdoors. Open doors and windows or use an exhaust fan to improve ventilation. Prolonged or repeated ventilation might be needed to reduce VOC levels from building materials such as furniture or new carpets that tend to release VOCs at a slower rate over time.

  1. Get Information

Search for VOC information on products that you use or store in your home. Information relating to chemicals that are contained in household products is often listed on the front part of the product and a more comprehensive list is available on the National Institute of Health's website.

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