Starting in the 1970s, we began building homes and businesses with greater energy efficiency. While this was good for the environment as a whole because it decreased the use of polluting fossil fuels, in some cases it has led to worse indoor air quality because harmful emissions are trapped inside our well-insulated buildings. One contributor to poor indoor air quality is the prevalence of products containing volatile organic compounds or VOCs.
Defining Volatile Organic Compounds
All substances that contain carbon molecules are organic. Some are volatile in the sense that they easily emit gasses into the air. There are thousands of products that qualify as VOCs. Some of the most common are cleaning products and building materials.
Scientists are just beginning to study these compounds and it is not clear how many of them are dangerous, but some, for example benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and perchloroethylene, are clearly harmful to human health.
What the chemical is, the amount and length of exposure to it, all combine to determine the health danger. Individuals who are chemically sensitive, allergic, or asthmatic will also react stronger than the typical person.
Where Are VOCs Found?
We spend 90% of our time indoors. With so much time spent inside, it follows we should be conscious about what’s in our indoor environment, especially in the spaces we frequent, like our homes, offices, and schools.
Of particular concern are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are gases emitted at room temperature as a byproduct of certain materials, many of which are common household items and office supplies. There exist a number of VOCs, with the most-known ones including formaldehyde, pesticides, cleaning supplies, and solvents.
VOCs can have an adverse affect on human health, much like microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs), which are gasses produced by mold. Like with MVOCs, symptoms of overexposure to VOCs can include dizziness, headaches, and/or irritation to the eyes or respiratory system.
However, certain VOCs, like formaldehyde and pesticides, are known carcinogens (i.e. cancer causing). Also, unlike MVOCs, VOCs are industrially produced and are not emitted from living organisms. As such, identifying the source of VOCs and their elimination entails different processes.
Possible Sources of VOCs
There are literally thousands of products that produce VOCs. Common household products include cleaning sprays, paint, finishers, moth balls, bug spray, and air fresheners. Common workplace products include printers, copiers, permanent markers, and adhesives. Even with caps tightened and items put away, VOCs can still escape from bottles and cabinets. Here are some other examples of sources of VOCs:
- cleaning and disinfecting products
- air fresheners
- photography chemicals
- dry cleaning solvents (commercial and home use)
- carpet, vinyl and composite flooring
- upholstery and foams
While we can eliminate the source of these VOCs by using these products more responsibly or throwing them away, such is not necessarily the case with building materials. Exposure to VOCs may be of particular concern in newly-constructed or remodeled buildings, as formaldehyde-based resins are commonly used in compressed wood, plywood, paneling, and subflooring. In other words, VOCs may be entirely surrounding you, as they emit from the walls, floors, and furniture of your home or office.
What Can You Do?
If you suspect you have been affected by the presence of VOCs, or if you would like to limit the amount of VOCs in a new construction project or renovation, consulting a professional is a sure way to identify and mitigate your exposure.
Professionals are well-equipped to identify sources of VOCs, suggest proper venting and other solutions for your particular space, as well as distinguish the presence of VOCs from other possibly harmful air pollutants, like MVOCs.
- Limit direct exposure: Check the products you buy to reduce that amount of VOC emitting products in your home or business. The less VOCs you live with in the form of building materials, and the less you use in the form of cleaning and craft supplies, the better.
- Avoid leaks: Some of these chemicals can leak out, at lower levels, when stored. So don’t stockpile solvents, paints or other products. And what you do store, store in a basement or garage where you aren’t exposed every day, all day.
- Ventilate: Swap out the indoor and outdoor air by opening doors and using fans in doorways and windows.
How Important Is It To Eliminate the Presence of VOCs?
Quite important. Due to their health risks, VOCs are on the radar of various agencies that seek to limit our everyday exposure, like the American Medical Association, the American Lung Association, the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Administration, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Possible Symptoms of Short-Term Exposure
- eye, skin or respiratory irritation
- memory or vision difficulties
- lack of coordination
- asthma attacks
Possible Long-Term Health Consequences
- damage to liver, kidneys or central nervous system
Want more information on VOCs? Need a consult on what remedial measures you can take? Contact us at Titan Environmental Services. We’re always happy to lend our expertise and lead our customers towards results-oriented solutions.