What are VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds?

If you are wondering what are VOCs, you should know that they easily change their form from liquid to vapor. Organic compounds represent chemicals which contain carbon, being present in all living things. However, volatile organic compounds represent organic compounds that can easily transform into gases or vapors. Besides carbon, they may also contain nitrogen, sulfur, bromine, chlorine, fluorine, oxygen and hydrogen.

VOCs are released when burning fuel like natural gas, gasoline, coal or wood. Furthermore, gas and oil fields, as well as diesel exhaust, also emit volatile organic compounds. Glues, paints, solvents and other similar products that we may store at home or work also contain VOCs. Unfortunately, several volatile organic compounds may also be dangerous air pollutants.

What are VOCs

When VOCs combine with nitrogen oxides, they form smog or ground-level ozone. This is pollution that contributes to climate change. Other examples of volatile organic compounds are benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, styrene, xylene, and perchloroethylene. We are all exposed to VOCs since they are common air pollutants present in most of the air in the United States.

If you breathe polluted air from outdoors, it means that you are exposed to VOCs. Specialists indicate that you may be more exposed to VOCs in the summer when the hot temperatures and the sun react with pollution and form smog. Hence, government officials may trigger air quality alerts.

Nevertheless, there are several indoor products which feature VOCs, too. When you use those products, they release VOCs. However, you might not know that they release volatile organic compounds even when you do not use them, and you just store them at home. In case you dry clean your clothes by using dry-cleaning products, or if you clean them at a professional dry-cleaner.

You should also know that hobby, painting and cleaning supplies as well as photographic solutions, permanent markers and glues can emit VOCs. Therefore, if you work with petroleum-based products or chemical manufacturing, or if you use correction fluids, printers, and copiers, you get exposed to volatile organic compounds.

How can VOCs affect human health

Depending on the compound, the health effects of volatile organic compounds may vary greatly. They can range from having no known health effects from being highly toxic. You should know that the health effects depend on the nature of the volatile organic compound, the length exposure and the level of exposure.

In the Fourteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program, formaldehyde and benzene appear listed as human carcinogens. Furthermore, they list styrene, perchloroethylene and diesel exhaust particulates as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens”. People at the highest risk of long-term exposure to these VOCs are cigarette smokers, industrial workers and those exposed to emissions from heavy motor traffic.

Long-term exposure may determine damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. Nevertheless, short-term exposure to volatile organic compounds may cause respiratory tract and eye irritation, visual disorders, dizziness, memory impairment, nausea, allergic skin reactions, loss of coordination, fatigue, and headaches.

How to reduce exposure

A big city covered in smog

The smog we see every day covering our cities also contains volatile organic compounds.

When it comes to indoor exposure to these organic compounds, you can reduce exposure by using some of the methods below:

  • Do not mix household products unless instructed to do so on the label;
  • Keep those products out of reach of pets and children;
  • Throw away unused containers safely and make sure you purchase only the quantities that you use;
  • Provide lots of fresh air when using those products;
  • Use household products following manufacturer’s directions;
  • Use integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides;
  • Do not store unused paints’ opened containers or similar materials within the house;
  • Meet label precautions;
  • Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs;
  • Formaldehyde is one of the indoor air pollutants that is hard to measure. Hence, you should try to identify it and remove the source. If you cannot remove them, you should at least reduce exposure by implementing a sealant on all exposed surfaces.

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Types of organic compounds

Usually, potentially hazardous products have warning meant to reduce exposure of the user. In case a label indicates that you should use the product in a well-ventilated area, you need to go in a room with an exhaust fan or even outdoors. If this is not the case, then you have to open up all the windows to provide a maximum amount of outdoor air.

If you have stored somewhere in your closet some partially full containers of unneeded or old chemicals, you need to make sure that you throw them away safely. Closed containers can still emit gases. Therefore, you should not simply toss them in the garbage bin. You should find out whether there are special days for the collection of toxic household wastes in your community.

Another important aspect is to limit exposure to emissions coming from products that feature methylene chloride. Numerous products such as aerosol spray paints, adhesive removers, and paint strippers contain this dangerous chemical. Methylene chloride can even cause cancer in animals. Furthermore, this gas can be converted into carbon monoxide in the body, causing similar symptoms to the ones experienced when exposed to carbon monoxide.

That is why you need to carefully read the labels which feature health hazard information and cautions regarding the proper use of these products. When possible, you should use the products that contain this compound outdoors.

The exposure to benzene is also dangerous. The primary indoor sources of this chemical are automobile emissions in attached garages, paint supplies, stored fuels and tobacco smoke. In order to reduce benzene exposure, you should eliminate smoking within the house and provide maximum ventilation while you paint.

Summing up

All these volatile organic compounds can pose a threat to human health, being extremely dangerous for children and pets, too. That is why we should try to limit as much as possible the exposure to these organic compounds, especially know when we have learned what are VOCs. Furthermore, you should make sure you safely throw away containers that feature these chemicals.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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