In this article the air quality specialists at WTS examine the impact of volatile organic compounds or VOCs on indoor air quality and the subsequent health effects on people exposed to such compounds. The article looks at what these compounds are, sources of VOCs and where they are commonly found, and the potential health effects exposure can cause. We conclude by reviewing practical measures that can be taken to limit exposure to VOCs and so keep people safe from harm.
What are volatile organic compounds?
Volatile organic compounds, often abbreviated to VOCs, are chemicals which can be released in the form of a gas from various liquids and solids. A large number of different chemicals fall under the umbrella of VOCs, and some of these are known to have a significant effect on indoor air quality with either long or short-term effects on the health of those people exposed to them. Some of the more common VOCs found in indoor environments include:
It might surprise you to learn that when measured, the concentration of VOCs inside our homes, offices and other workplaces can sometimes be as much as 10 times higher than those levels found outside… and there are thousands of different products that might contain VOCs.
Some of the more common sources of volatile organic compounds are in everyday household products. You will find VOCs in paint, varnish and waxes used in decorating. VOCs are also found in cleaning chemicals, cosmetics, and products used for removing oil and grease. Fuel contains VOCs too. When being used, all of these types of products can release VOCs in to the atmosphere to affect indoor air quality. Some might also slowly release VOCs while being stored.
Research in to volatile organic compounds
One large academic study completed back in 1985, looked at levels of 12 commonly found organic air pollutants. Researchers found levels to be 2 to 5 times higher inside people’s homes than in the open air. These results were the same whether the house was in the countryside, or in an area with lots of industry. The study also found that when products containing volatile organic compounds were being used, the exposure levels could become extremely high. Furthermore, significant concentrations remained in the air for a considerable time after use too.
Where are VOCs found?
You will find VOCs in a huge range of everyday household products which we all have at home and at work. These products include:
- Solvents and paint stripper products
- Disinfectants and other household cleaning products
- Air fresheners
- Hobby products like glues
- Clothing which has been dry-cleaned
Other materials may contain VOCs too. They are often found in:
- Construction materials
- Soft furnishings
- Office equipment such as printers or photocopiers
- Photocopy paper
- Glues and adhesives
- Permanent felt-tip marker pens
What are the health effects of VOCs?
People who live or work in environments where they are exposed to high levels of VOCs can report a wide range of heath conditions. These may include some or several of the following:
How do I know if I have been exposed?
Not all volatile organic compounds will affect indoor air quality in the same way or produce the same adverse health effects in humans. Some compounds, such as benzene are extremely toxic indeed, others are not known to cause any health problems at all. The ill effects experienced by people will depend on a wide range of factors such as the level of VOCs in the air and the length of time spent in that environment. If you have been exposed to high levels of VOCs you might experience:
- Irritation in the eyes, nose or throat
- Loss of memory and/or sight problems
To date there has not been a great deal of research about the health effects on people from varying levels of VOCs which are typically found in the average household. In most homes, offices and other workplaces, levels of VOCs are typically around 2 to 5 times higher than outside. However, if you are using products that are known to release higher levels of VOCs such as paint stripper or similar products in an enclosed space, the exposure levels might be as much as 1000 times higher than outside.
Simple ways of reducing exposure to VOCs
There are lots of simple steps you can take to minimise the impact on indoor air quality and so reduce the risk of adverse health affects when using products which contain VOCs including:
Always follow the label
Perhaps the key piece of advice is to read the manufacturer’s instructions provided on the product label or any COSHH assessments prepared by your employer. If you are directed to only use the product in a well ventilated area, go outside if possible. If this is not practical open all windows or doors, or use some form of local exhaust ventilation.
Don’t store leftover products that contain volatile organic compounds
VOCs can leak out of containers which you think are correctly sealed. Don’t keep partially used products. Don’t throw them in the general rubbish either. If you are a business, dispose of all hazardous products in accordance with current waste management and environmental regulations. If you are using the products at home look on your local Council website to find out about arrangements for disposal of paint and other types of chemicals locally. Remember – only ever buy as much as you need and don’t stockpile.
What about methylene chloride?
Methylene chloride is one of the products of particular concern when considering volatile organic compounds. You will find methylene chloride in paint stripper, products designed to remove glue and spray paint. This particular VOC is known to cause cancer in some animals. In the human body, it is converted to carbon monoxide and can cause health problems. If using products containing methylene chloride, follow any COSHH assessments that are in place and the manufacturer’s instructions very carefully. Use any recommended protective equipment and go outdoors if at all possible, and only ever use it indoors where you can ventilate the space effectively.
What about benzene?
Benzene is another VOC which is a known carcinogen. Benzene’s main sources inside our homes, offices and workplaces are from tobacco smoke, car exhaust fumes, paints and fuels. It is important to keep levels of benzene to a minimum by stopping people from smoking inside or near to open windows and building entrances, and taking steps to ventilate the internal spaces properly.
Are dry cleaning chemicals dangerous?
Perchloroethylene (also known as tetrachloroethene) is a chemical commonly used in the dry-cleaning process, and is known to cause cancer in some animals. If you have clothes which have recently been dry-cleaned, you could be breathing in low levels of perchloroethylene. Many dry cleaners recapture the chemical during their cleaning process so it can be used again. Some do not however, so taking steps to minimise exposure is highly recommended.
VOC exposure limits for business
In the UK workplace exposure limits are strictly controlled under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) legislation, with more specific guidance given by the Health and Safety Executive in their EH40/2005 Workplace Exposure Limits publication.
EH40 provides a detailed list of substances including volatile organic compounds and gives two separate measurements for each substance which are described as long term exposure limits (LTEL) and short term exposure limits (STEL). Long term exposure limits given in EH40 set-out the maximum exposure for someone in the workplace over an 8 hour period. Short term exposure limits specify the maximum exposure to a substance over a much shorter, 15 minute period. Exposure limits identified in EH40 for some of the more common VOCs found in indoor environments taken:
|Substance||Long-term exposure limit (8-hr TWA reference period) measured in ppm||Short-term exposure limit (15-minute reference period) measured in ppm|
Household VOC limits
In the UK there is no law around limiting levels of volatile organic compounds inside our homes. Every home will be different. Understanding the risks to health and indoor air quality from different VOCs, and learning to recognise the symptoms associated with exposure to higher levels is important. Additionally, taking some or all of the practical steps outlined above to use chemicals safely, disposing of any excess and ventilating your home properly are all things everyone can do at home to minimise the health issues associated with VOCs.
What to do if you are still concerned about volatile organic compounds
If you are still concerned about the presence of volatile organic compounds in your home or workplace, seek help from experts such as WTS who can carry out specialist indoor air quality testing and advise on measures that can help to reduce the levels of VOCs in your home, office or other workplace.
Specialist indoor air quality solutions
WTS offer a comprehensive range of indoor air quality solutions to support business owners, property managers, health and safety professionals, and facilities management specialists. Our experts can provide advice and support to help you identify the most appropriate strategies for the identification and investigation of indoor air pollutants such as VOCs.
With offices in London serving the South and South East England, Manchester (North West), Birmingham (Midlands), Bristol (South East England and Wales), Leeds (North and North East) and Glasgow (Scotland), supported by regional teams of specially trained technicians, in-field specialists and consultants we can offer professional, cost effective indoor air quality solutions throughout the UK and internationally.
Contact us today to learn how our home and workplace solutions can help keep you, your staff and other people safe from exposure to volatile organic compounds and other indoor air pollutants.
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