In the air all around you are pollutants and chemicals that can cause your body damage over time. Some of these pollutants are called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
Volatile organic compounds are some of the most common indoor and outdoor air pollutants that you'll run into on a daily basis. In most cases, you probably won't have any idea that you are respirating them, nor will you likely understand how potentially harmful they could be over time.
VOCs can be found in your new car, the come from the new couch you just bought, even the air freshener you just sprayed after a little too long in the bathroom. In order to understand the potential danger and the importance of recognizing VOCs in your daily life, let's first gain an understanding of what exactly volatile organic compounds are.
What are VOCs?
VOCs are compounds that have high vapor pressures and low solubility in water. They are usually byproducts of manufacturing, or even intentional creations used to serve purposes like fire retardants. The biggest single source of volatile organic compounds that you'll see in the products around you will likely be cigarettes, paints, refrigerants, pharmaceuticals, or chemically engineered products of the like.
These compounds turn into gasses after vaporizing from different solids or liquids due to their high vapor pressure, or their relative ease of state change from a liquid or solid into a gas at room temperature. In small doses or even concentrated high doses, VOCs generally may not produce side effects, although short term exposure may lead to dizziness, headaches, memory problems, and other issues.
More serious issues arise, however, when the time comes into play. Small doses of VOCs over time, say from living in a house with unsafe interior air quality, or high doses of VOCs in a short period of time, like working as a painter and not wearing a mask, can produce devastating biological responses in humans, including cancer and other types of damage to the kidneys, liver and, central nervous system.
Looking at the middle word in VOC, organic, we can understand these compounds are more specifically the ones that contain carbon atoms covalently linked to other molecules like hydrogen, oxygen, or nitrogen. While a non-chemist might associate "organic" with natural, and generally with positive things, it really means a compound that contains carbon. And the beauty of chemistry is that only a few molecular bonds can make all the difference.
The EPA found that there are over a dozen common VOCs that are 2 to 5 times higher in concentration inside of our homes, compared to the outside. This was regardless of the home's proximity to manufacturing or industrial facilities.
This underscores how some of the most common things that create VOCs are products and objects we regularly keep in our homes. This also underscores the need for proper ventilation in homes and the removal of these types of pollutants.
Where do VOCs come from?
We alluded to where VOCs come from to a small degree, but it becomes important to take a more systematic approach to list high VOC producing products and materials in order to fully understand the scope of VOC air pollution.
This is a list of some of the most common VOC sources:
- Aerosol sprays
- Cigarettes and second-hand smoke
- Dry-cleaned clothing
- New furniture, upholstery, and products
- Wood preservatives, like in treated lumber
- Moth Repellents
- Air fresheners
- Building materials
- Faux & synthetic fabrics
- Markers and inks
- Office equipment
Looking at that list, you're probably starting to think that VOCs are practically unavoidable. You're essentially right.
While you can't avoid VOCs in their entirety, you can limit your exposure and dosage. These are the things that really matter when it comes to air pollutants. A well-ventilated home will have lower levels of VOCs in it, and a lower chance of experiencing adverse health effects over time.
A poorly-ventilated home can let VOCs build up in the internal air and slowly pollute the occupants living inside.
What are the negative health effects of VOCs?
If you've made it this far, you're probably getting a little worried that you've been exposed to dangerous chemicals and are going to get cancer from them. While that may be the case, it's important to remain calm.
Air pollution can have natural causes, but most VOCs have been manufactured. And while we cannot escape air pollution entirely, we can manage some of its effects.
Before we get that far, though, first, let's review some of the negative health effects that VOCs can cause when respirated or absorbed through the skin.
- Respiratory irritation
- Liver damage
- Nervous system damage
- Allergic skin reaction
- Asthma and other breathing difficulties
These are just a few of the side-effects. The actual effects felt are going to vary based on the chemical you were exposed to, how much, and over how long you were exposed to it.
Each chemical has a different level of toxicity, referring to the amount of exposure that is dangerous. One VOC might require a lot of exposure before it starts causing noticeable side effects, while another may have near-instantaneous effects.
Every person also reacts differently. Like we mentioned though, level and length of exposure are key. If you spill some VOC producing chemicals on yourself once in your lifetime, you may experience side-effects, but they probably won't be long-lasting. This is because, once again, the level and length of exposure can be key to understanding the toxicity of VOCs.
How can you protect yourself?
After all that scare language, it becomes important to understand how we can protect ourselves as we go through our daily lives. Since this is ultimately a problem of limiting exposure rather than completely eradicating it, what it takes is remaining mindful of our exposure over time. To protect yourself from volatile organic compound exposure, you can:
- Increase ventilation in your home or workspace
- Pay attention to warning labels and try to exceed their warning guidelines
- Remove the source of pollutants, if you can narrow them down
- Let new products off-gas in a well-ventilated space
- Reduce pesticide use indoors
- Do not smoke, and stay away from second-hand smoke
For most household chemicals, they're going to have labels on them that make it very clear how dangerous they are. Following their instructions is a good first step. The harder VOCs to avoid are those that come from building materials and products we buy. If you buy a new piece of furniture, it's generally good practice to open it up and let it air out in an open area.
This lets many of the VOCs vaporize off of the product so you don't end up coming into contact with them.
Proper chemical storage is also an important safety measure when it comes to mitigating the dangers of VOCs in your life. Chemicals stored improperly, or even large quantities of chemicals stored correctly can off-gas volatile organic compounds into the air in high quantities.
One of the most common and dangerous VOCs is benzene, which is found in solvents, paints, emissions, and tobacco smoke. Benzene is a carcinogen and is one of the leading VOCs that causes cancer in humans.
Do you get your clothes dry cleaned often? Perchloroethylene is one of the most common dry-cleaning chemicals and it has been shown to cause cancer as well. This VOC can build up in homes or spaces where dry cleaning is common or frequent and should be avoided.
How VOCs actually harm you
Research on the biological mechanics of VOC exposure can be difficult. This is due to the fact that VOCs typically only cause harm over long periods of time, which can be difficult for researchers to track.
There are also analytical difficulties in measuring real ambient air concentrations, and in the evaluation of personal exposure as well as due to poor knowledge regarding the toxicity from how multiple compounds interact. This means that determining the exact health effects of VOCs can be difficult.
In addition to the limitations of epidemiological studies, there is also a lack of basic molecular information on how VOCs cause damage. This is partly because of the need for generating a stable atmosphere continuously over a longer period and a lack of knowledge about how genes and other response mechanisms act at sublethal concentrations. However, researchers can track the effect of VOCs on cells, and from this, they can infer some of the ways that VOC exposure is causing negative effects.
On a more technical note, VOCs cause harm by interfering with cellular metabolism, causing inflammatory responses, and by affecting genetic expression in a variety of ways.
This is why it is important to make sure to manage and be aware of your VOC exposure in order to reduce your risk of adverse side effects that can present themselves over time. Proper management is key to ensuring a high probability of health down the line.