What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

In this article, we’ll look at some of the common sources of VOCs, their impact on health and the environment and how you can reduce them.

If you’ve ever walked into a freshly painted room and thought, “Yikes, that smell is overwhelming. Breathing in these chemicals can’t be good for me,” you’re right.

Volatile Organic Compounds, also known as VOCs, are a type of chemical that can vaporize into the air or dissolve into water and are present in many everyday items, including paints, adhesives, cleaning supplies, and cosmetics. They evaporate quickly at room temperature and are easily absorbed into our bodies through inhalation or contact with the skin or eyes.

Often most people don’t even realize they are being exposed to these compounds, but it’s essential to be aware of the harm they can cause. In this article, we’ll look at some of the common sources of VOCs, their impact on health and the environment, and how you can reduce them.

What Do You Know About VOCs

Common Sources of VOCs in Commercial & School Buildings

Volatile Organic Compounds can come from numerous different sources, such as:

Building Materials

Many materials used to construct a building itself let off VOCs, including paints, varnishes, sealants, caulks, and adhesives. Even some types of flooring, carpets, or certain wood products release VOCs into the air.

Cleaning Supplies

Cleaning supplies are also a significant source of Volatile Organic Compounds in any commercial and school environment. According to a 2003 California Air Resources Board study, cleaning products alone account for 7.4 tonnes of VOCs released daily. (We can only assume that this is much higher now in 2022.)

Office Equipment

Another common source of VOCs in commercial and school buildings is office equipment. Copiers and printers are major culprits, but these dangerous compounds can also be emitted by correction fluid, copy paper, and even small office supplies like glue, permanent markers, and whiteboard markers.

Office Copier Creating VOCs

Impacts of VOCs on Health

Inhaling VOCs is the most dangerous means of exposure, as the chemicals pass through the membrane of the lungs and into the bloodstream. These harmful compounds cause several side effects, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea, skin irritation, and dizziness. In higher concentrations, they can even cause long-term degradation of the lungs, as well as liver, kidney, or central nervous system damage.

Volatile Organic Compounds have been linked to mood disorders, including fatigue, irritability, and depression. In addition, it has been linked to neurotoxic issues such as diminished motor control and tremors. Over the long term, there have even been reports of cancer that have been linked to continuous exposure to VOCs.  

Some people have a heightened sensitivity to VOCs. For example, people with respiratory problems such as asthma will be more likely to be irritated by these chemicals. Also, young children and the elderly are more at risk.

Global Air Quality Impacts of VOCs

Impact of VOCs on Global Air Quality

VOCs aren’t just making us sick in indoor environments; they are seriously affecting our ecosystems. The VOCs in the atmosphere from vehicles, power plants, and other industrial sources react with sunlight and nitrogen oxides to form ozone. This ozone accumulates and results in smog that reduces visibility and lowers air quality on a significant scale.

These compounds can stimulate diseases in plants, reduce seed production, and hinder fertilization. Methane is also released in conjunction with VOCs, a greenhouse gas that will trap heat within the atmosphere and increase the overall global temperature.

Common Methods of VOCs Being Created In the Air

How to Reduce VOCs and Improve Your Indoor Air Quality

There are many ways you can reduce exposure to VOCs.

Test Air Quality Regularly

Awareness of VOCs has increased over the last few years, but there are still a lot of misconceptions about them. For example, many people believe that if there is no bad smell in the air, the environment is free of VOCs. However, many VOCs have no odor and can’t be detected this way. That’s why testing air quality is so important!

Improve Ventilation

Make sure that your building has adequate ventilation. This is especially important for labs, workspaces, art studios, or any room where a high amount of potentially VOC-containing products will be used.

Aerosol Room Air Freshener Spray Creating VOCs

Avoid Aerosol Products

Avoid using aerosol consumer products such as air fresheners, insecticides, etc. These products often use VOCs as their propellants. You can also encourage students to do the same. For example, ask them to bring roll-on deodorant to gym class rather than the aerosol type.

Use Low VOC Products

When choosing paints, adhesives, stains, and other materials, make sure you opt for the “low-VOC” option. For example, you can use water-based paints instead of solvent-based options and apply them via hand brushes and rollers rather than sprayers. Read the ingredients on all products, and don’t be fooled by so-called “green” products - they can have just as many VOCs as the others.

Activated Carbon Air Filter For Remove VOCs

Use Multi-Stage Air Filtration

A traditional HEPA filter-based or electronic air purification system may not be enough to remove VOCs from the air. The gaseous form of VOCs makes it difficult for HEPA filters to capture them and technologies like bipolar ionization to eliminate VOCs.

However, the "tried and true" method for reducing VOCs has always been Activated Carbon filters. Activated carbon filtration is an adsorbent media filter that uses granular activated carbon (GAC) or activated charcoal. This filter type is designed to remove specific pollutants, including organic chemicals from water, but also gaseous particles and VOCs from the air.

To learn more about VOCs and how you can keep your commercial and school buildings healthy and safe, contact us today!

Let's Build A Solution Together.

Please fill out the form, and a Sanalife representative will be in touch.

More Stories From Sanalife

View All Blogs
Medium Blue Arrow Pointing Right.

See More Related Blogs + Stories

Unlock Air Quality Wisdom

Sign-up to gain access to exclusive air quality knowledge, expertise, and purifier technology. Delivered straight to your inbox.