There is currently a trend amongst building designers, builders, and even homeowners, to use products that are more environmentally friendly than some of their counterparts. One way such products have become more "green" is to say that it is "low VOC" or "zero VOC." This then begs the question: what are VOCs and why are they bad? What is their impact on indoor air quality?
To say that these compounds are organic means that they contain a carbon molecule. "Volatile" refers to the compound's potential to transform into a gaseous state at normal room temperature. We all know the smell of new paint as it is applied to walls, or that new car smell that lingers for a while and then dissipates, or the odor that comes along with the installation of new carpeting. These are all examples of organic molecules evaporating from the products and becoming airborne.
There are many potential indoor sources of VOCs. These include:
- Air fresheners
- Cleaning products
- Perfume & cologne
- Office equipment (e.g. printers & faxes)
Saying that something is a VOC doesn't really say much about its potential impact on health. Health effects can range from none to serious illness and death. Some seem benign, while others are known human carcinogens. The following is a summary, taken from the EPA's website, of the more immediate potential health effects caused by VOCs:
"Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness."
Where Do VOCs Come From Inside a Building or Home?
Many people may not know it, but they are willingly introducing VOCs into their homes on a daily basis. Air fresheners are amongst the worst offenders. These products are filled with various volatile compounds that manufacturers hope you will spray profusely all over your home. Cleaning products are another major source of these contaminants. Although some paint manufacturers offer products with little or no VOCs, many paints still do contain many chemicals that become airborne at room temperature. New furniture and carpeting also release VOCs.
Perfumes and colognes give off copious amounts of organic compounds, as do many types of cosmetics. Scented laundry detergent and fabric softener also depend on these chemicals to give you that "spring fresh" or "summer breeze" odor.
It is probable that most VOCs within a an office work environment are introduced from the occupants themselves. The residual dryer sheet odors, fabric softener chemicals, perfumes, colognes, cosmetics, deodorants, hair products, and the like, all give off potentially harmful organics. Office furniture and carpeting is a another major source, especially in new buildings.
It is also known that office equipment such as printers give off not only VOCs, but ultrafine particulate and ozone as well. Many times, the cleaning products used in offices are not of the "green" variety, and thus will give off unwanted chemicals. Products such as automatic air fresheners in bathrooms dispense these compounds into the air with the sole purpose of becoming inhaled.
All of this makes it even more important to have a properly functioning HVAC system that is delivering sufficient makeup (outside) air to dilute and remove excess levels of VOCs. When insufficient air is being supplied, indoor air quality suffers, and contaminants may cause discomfort or unwanted health effects.
How Do You Test for VOCs?
VOCs can be measured in a number of ways. An indoor air quality professional looking for a quick measurement of the total amount of VOCs in the air may use something called a photo-ionization detector, or PID. This instrument gives an overall reading for the total amount of VOCs in a given environment.
If it is necessary to identify individual compounds, a consultant may choose to use what is called a SUMMA canister. A SUMMA canister is a stainless steel vessel that is under negative pressure. When a valve is turned, air is drawn into the canister at a pre-determined rate. When the sample is complete, the valve is closed, and the sample is sent to a laboratory for testing by gas chromatography.
Yet a third way to test for these compounds in through the use of a passive diffusion badge. These badges are developed is such a way that organic compounds are adsorbed onto the surface. The badge is then analyzed by the laboratory in much the same manner as the air in the SUMMA canister.
Should you desire VOC sampling in your place of work, you should contact a reputable and certified industrial hygiene and indoor air quality professional. These individuals have the experience, expertise, and equipment to obtain valid and meaningful data.
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