Volatile Organic Compounds

 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. While most people can smell high levels of some VOCs, other VOCs have no odor.  

 

Many types of VOCs are toxic or even deadly to humans and can be detrimental to the environment.  Persons with respiratory problems such as asthma, young children, elderly, and persons with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and illness from VOCs.

More About VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands.

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, decreasing and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

EPA's Office of Research and Development's "Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study" (Volumes I through IV, completed in 1985) found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. TEAM studies indicated that while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.

Sources of VOCs

 

Household products, including:

  • paints, paint strippers and other solvents

  • wood preservatives

  • aerosol sprays

  • cleansers and disinfectants

  • moth repellents and air fresheners

  • stored fuels and automotive products

  • hobby supplies

  • dry-cleaned clothing

  • pesticide

 

Other products, including:

  • building materials and furnishings

  • office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper

  • graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions.

Health Effects

 

Health effects may include:

  • Eye, nose and throat irritation

  • Headaches, loss of coordination and 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

 

The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics include:

 

  • eye and respiratory tract irritation

  • headaches

  • dizziness

  • visual disorders and memory impairment

 

At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes.

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