What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?
Learn about common VOC sources, their effects on health and the environment, and methods for reducing indoor airborne VOC levels.
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 chemical compounds with high vapor pressure and low water solubility. They evaporate quickly at room temperature and are easily absorbed into our bodies through inhalation or contact with the skin or eyes.
Many VOCs are man-made chemicals used in everyday items, including paints, adhesives, cleaning supplies, and cosmetics. 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. This article will discuss common VOC sources, their effects on health and the environment, and strategies for reducing indoor airborne VOC levels.
Common Sources of VOCs in Commercial & School Buildings
Volatile Organic Compounds can come from numerous different sources, such as:
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 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.)
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.
What Are Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs)?
Total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) are a collective measure of all the individual volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in the air. As such, TVOCs represent the overall concentration of VOCs in a given environment, typically measured in parts per billion (ppb) or milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) using an air quality monitor capable of detecting VOCs.
It is worth noting, however, that the composition of TVOCs needs to be consistently defined across measurement standards, with variations in the types of VOCs included and the weighting assigned to each contributing VOC. The World Health Organization and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have provided widely used TVOC composition standards.
What Are The Health Risks of Volatile Organic Compounds?
Exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can present various health risks, from short-term symptoms to long-term adverse health effects. The severity of these health effects depends on factors such as the level and duration of exposure. Immediate symptoms can include respiratory and visual disorders, headaches, and dizziness. However, the health effects of low-level exposure to VOCs in commercial indoor environments have yet to be entirely understood.
The most hazardous form of exposure to VOCs is inhalation because these chemicals can pass through the lung membrane and enter the bloodstream. Ingesting these harmful compounds can result in eye, nose, and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea, skin irritation, and dizziness. In higher concentrations, VOCs can even cause long-term damage to the lungs, liver, kidney, or central nervous system.
Volatile Organic Compounds have been associated with mood disorders such as fatigue, irritability, and depression. They have also been linked to neurotoxic issues such as tremors and diminished motor control. Over the long term, continuous exposure to VOCs has even been associated with cancer. Sensitivity to VOCs may also vary between individuals. For example, people with respiratory problems, such as asthma, are more likely to be irritated by these chemicals. Additionally, young children and the elderly are more at risk.
What Are The Environmental Impacts of VOCs?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) not only affect human health in indoor environments but also significantly impact our ecosystems. When released into the atmosphere by vehicles, power plants, and other industrial sources, they react with sunlight and nitrogen oxides to form ground-level ozone, a primary component of smog. This smog reduces visibility and air quality, leading to respiratory problems and other health issues.
Moreover, VOCs can harm plants and other living organisms in the ecosystem. They can trigger plant diseases, reduce seed production, and hinder fertilization, thus threatening crop yields and the survival of various species. Methane, a greenhouse gas, is also released in conjunction with VOCs. Methane traps heat within the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and increasing global temperature.
In addition to damaging the environment, VOCs can also have economic consequences. Poor air quality due to VOC emissions can result in lost productivity, higher healthcare costs, and reduced property values. In some cases, regulatory agencies may also impose fines on companies that exceed VOC emission limits.
Therefore, it is essential to understand VOC emissions' potential impact on human health and the environment. Reducing VOC emissions can positively impact the ecosystem, the economy, and public health. By adopting sustainable practices and using environmentally-friendly products; we can reduce the negative impact of VOCs and promote a healthier and more sustainable world.
What Standards or Guidelines Exist For VOCs Indoors?
There is currently no regulatory standard for indoor volatile organic compound (VOC) levels in commercial indoor environments. However, the WELL Building Institute created "Air" parameters utilizing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) set by the EPA and air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), ASHRAE, and the LEED program. The WELL Institute's "Air" parameters evaluate 29 criteria, including VOC reduction, ventilation effectiveness, air filtration, and smoking prohibition.
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!
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.
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.
Implement Traditional And Emerging Indoor Air Quality Technologies
One of the best ways to reduce airborne VOC concentrations is by strategically implementing indoor air quality technologies. If you are considering traditional air purification methods, Activated Carbon filters have always been a "tried and true" method for reducing VOCs. Activated carbon is an adsorbent media filter using granular activated carbon (GAC) or fiber-bonded carbon. This type of filter is designed to remove specific pollutants, including organic chemicals from water, gaseous particles, and VOCs from the air.
However, emerging air quality technologies offer the most cost-effective solutions in large-scale commercial facilities. Technologies like ActivePure are specifically designed to reduce airborne pollutants, including VOCs, in high-density indoor environments. ActivePure Technology relies on the natural chemistry of air to reduce airborne pathogens and contaminants while continuously improving indoor air quality.
If you aim to reduce VOC concentrations in your commercial or school buildings, incorporating traditional and emerging indoor air quality technologies can provide occupants with a safe and healthy environment. Contact us today to learn more and take the first step towards better indoor air quality.
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