VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) Pollution
An Introduction to VOCs
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are one of the major components of both indoor and outdoor pollution. They are found in thousands of products in everyday use, from vehicle fuel and building materials, to photocopier toner and paint. Levels indoors tend to be 2-5 times higher than those found outdoors. Exposure to VOCs can cause a number of health effects, such as eye and throat irritation in the short term, to cancer on chronic exposure and use. Careful handling, where an alternative cannot be found, is essential to reduce the risk of exposure to VOCs in the environment.
What is a volatile organic compound?
A volatile organic compound (VOC) is one of a group of carbon based-compounds which readily evaporate into the air. Some of the best known VOCs include:
- Formaldehyde, found in a variety of products including board-backed wood, preservatives and carpet backing
- Methylene chloride, found in paint strippers, aerosol spray paint and adhesive removers
- Perchloroethylene, a solvent used widely in dry cleaning.
There are various scientific definitions of a VOC. The one used in the European Union's Paint Directive is readily understandable – a VOC is an organic compound with a boiling point of 250°C or less at atmospheric pressure.
What VOCs are Found in Outdoor Air Pollution?
Outdoors, vehicle exhaust and emissions from burning wood are the main source of VOCs. The main problem with VOCs outdoors in their reaction with nitrogen oxide emissions (from the same source) in sunlight to form a highly toxic mixture of pollutants called photochemical smog. This is sometimes observed in the urban environment as a brown haze over the city. Photochemical smog is most often seen in the summer months, when sunlight levels are highest. One component of photochemical smog, ozone, is a particular health hazard. Other toxins, such as peroxyacetyl nitrate, have also been identified in photochemical smog.
What VOCs are Found in Indoor Air Pollution?
Many VOCs found inside are synthetic in origin. These include:
- Board-based furniture and flooring boards. Board is a wood-based product that includes laminated board, chip board (also known as particle board), hardboard, and medium-density fibreboard (MDF). These are made of wood bonded with a glue that contains formaldehyde
- Wood preservatives
- Cleaning products
- Foam-backed new carpets and underlay
- Air fresheners
- Dry-cleaned clothes
- Paint and varnish. Solvent is added to paint to make it easier to apply. Paint may emit solvents when drying and some contain formaldehyde which continues to 'leak' into the air for many months once the paint is dry. Paint strippers are solvent-based and a source of VOCs.
- Aerosols, including air fresheners
- Non-iron, easy-care or crease-resistant fabrics. These have been treated with a finish that contains formaldehyde.
Organic solvents are the VOC component of many of these products. When exposed to the air, the solvent readily evaporates, adding to the VOC burden in the air. Often, the VOCs are emitted into the air from products like new carpet or board-based product over a period of months or even years – in a process known as out-gassing. Some VOCs do occur naturally. For instance, peeling an orange releases volatile compounds into the air, while a cut onion readily causes eye-watering because of the volatiles produced from its tissue.
What are the Health Effects of VOCs?
Organic compounds vary greatly in their impact on human health. Many have no known health effects while others, like benzene (a known carcinogen) are definitely harmful. Many VOCs are irritants and can provoke symptoms among those with asthma, rhinitis and, especially, those with multiple chemical sensitivity. However, VOCs are not allergens in the way house dust mite, pet dander and pollen are.
Symptoms of exposure to VOCs may include:
- Throat, nose and eye irritation
- Liver, kidney and central nervous system damage
- Breathlessness, wheezing.
Many VOCs cause cancer in animals but fewer are established as being human carcinogens. The following compounds are known or probably carcinogens:
A special word of caution is needed on ozone which is not, in itself, a VOC but is formed by the reaction of VOCs with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight. Exposure to ozone affects the lungs, causing inflammation and reducing lung function. Symptoms include:
- Pain, burning, and discomfort in the chest on breathing
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
- Throat irritation
Research has shown an increase in asthma attacks, hospital admissions and overall mortality on days when outside ozone levels are higher. Ozone exposure makes asthma symptoms worse and increases sensitivity to asthma triggers.
What Legislation Exists to Protect People from VOCs?
A number of VOCs in use in the workplace are controlled by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health legislation. Outdoor pollution is generally controlled by environmental legislation which covers photochemical smog and ozone. For indoor VOCs, there are new laws from the European Union which lowers levels of VOCs in paints, stains, and varnishes. The Volatile Organic Compounds in Paints, Varnishes, and Vehicle Refinishing Regulations (known for short as VOC 2010) means that manufacture of non-compliant products stopped on 1stJanuary 2010 and sale on 1stJanuary 2011. Products are divided into different categories (matt, gloss, primer and so on) and different upper limits for VOCs laid down for each group. Within the group, limits differ for solvent and water-based products. This is to make sure that the product still does what is says on the tin.
What can be Done to Reduce Exposure to VOCs?
Completely avoiding VOCs can be incredibly difficult. They are present in everything from our dry cleaning to furniture and the cosmetic products we trust. Opening windows and improving ventilation goes some way to reducing your exposure, however if you live in a polluted area then you may simply be replacing one VOC for another - traffic pollution.
The most effective way to reduce your exposure to VOCs is through the use of an air purifier designed to remove them. For example the IQAir GCX VOC. Using effective air filtration is of critical importance to those with a VOC sensitivity or those working with VOCs where legal legislation may apply.
Speak to one of the experts at Commercial Air Filtration to discover how you can reduce exposure to VOCs: 020 3176 0524.
BY DR. SUSAN ALDRIDGE
VOC Pollution Articles
Air Quality in Your Beauty Salon - Is it a Health Hazard?
Hairdressing and beauty salons have always been a potential source of indoor air pollution, because harsh chemicals may be applied to the hair, nails and body to achieve the desired aesthetic results. Old-fashioned perms used ammonia (today’s are much milder), hair is still bleached with peroxide, and acetone (the fruity smell is unmistakable) is an essential ingredient in nail polish remover. For the client, a visit to the salon may be just an occasional treat or a weekly routine - either way, for people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) being exposed to toxic chemicals can have a severe impact on their well being. Even more problematic is an unhealthy indoor environment for the employees who work in a salon day in, day out. Poor ventilation, as well as improper use, storage (not putting the lid back on containers, for instance) or disposal of the many chemicals used in modern beauty treatments will quickly cause air quality inside the salon to deteriorate.
Chemicals in cosmetics are subject to COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations. But a 2008 survey of over 200 hairdressing and nail salons in London commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive showed that only two fifths had a good grasp of the concept of COSHH assessments and kept a list of their products, noting those which could be hazardous to the health of staff and customers. But, let’s be fair, the inspectors did say that the majority of salon staff had a good general awareness of the potential health risks of the chemicals they use.
The survey also learned that 60% of salon staff considered potential health hazards of any new treatments to be offered to clients. Just over half? Seems a bit low to me. The beauty sector, mostly dominated by small businesses, is growing fast and it’s fiercely competitive. Several salons have sprung up on my high street over the last year or so (by the way, I go to a well-run, well-established, family salon just up the road - no health hazard problems there!). But some of these new salons are definitely doing the wrong thing. I’ve walked past and seen nail technicians wearing dust masks while working on artificial nails. The HSE survey noted that employees in half of the nail bars they inspected were using dust masks. But this is not a recommended method for controlling the dust produced by filing away at artificial nails. Nor will masks trap molecules of Volatile Organic Compounds such as Methyl Methacrylate (MMA) or Ethyl Methacrylate (EMA) which are often used in articifial nail treatments.
There is a widespread ban on MMA in the United States, for this toxic chemical can cause permanent lung and liver damage through chronic exposure. The beauty industry here has called for a UK ban on MMA but, as far as I know, this is not yet on the cards. MMA has been replaced by EMA which is less toxic in some artificial nail treatments. In the HSE survey, half the salons offering the treatments said they did not contain either MMA or EMA. The inspectors found this surprising, because EMA is present in so many of these products. They therefore wondered whether salon workers did not in fact realise that they were using EMA in their products.
It may take some time before the ingredients in products coming into salons are (relatively) free of health hazards. In the meantime, salon owners and managers should be doing the right thing to protect employees and customers from beauty product related air contamination. For instance, a HEPA air purifier or a Gas & Chemical air purifier could be installed. Extractor hoods or downdraught tables are recommended where the nail technician is working on a client’s artificial nails but the survey found they were not widely used (presumably the ineffective dust masks are mistakenly thought to be a cheaper option?).
Click here to learn more about the Best Air Purifiers for Beauty Salons.
VOCs in Paints, Stains and Varnishes
The paint industry is doing its bit to improve health and the environment through the introduction of new European Union-based legislation which lowers the amount of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in paints, stains and varnishes. The Volatile Organic Compounds in Paints, Varnishes, and Vehicle Refinishing Regulations (known in short as VOC 2010) means that the manufacture of non-compliant products stopped on 1st January 2010 and the sale of these products on 1st January 2011. Products are divided into different categories (matt, gloss, primer and so on) and different upper limits for VOCs laid down for each group. And within the group, the limits differ for solvent and water-based products. This is to make sure that the product still does what is says on the tin. When shopping for DIY, look for the label 'VOC 2010 compliant' on your paint, stain or varnish to be sure. Otherwise if you hire a firm to pain for you, make sure they confirm that the paint complies with the VOC 2010.
Paint accounts for less than 1% of all UK VOC emissions. In fact, VOCs are found in a wide range of DIY and cleaning products. They are small carbon-containing molecules which readily evaporate from products containing them (a process known as 'out-gassing'), so they form part of the gaseous component of indoor air pollution. Outdoors, VOCs are produced by car exhausts and can react with nitrogen oxides (also from car exhausts) to produce ground-level ozone, a powerful pollutant and the main component of photochemical smog. VOCs have also been implicated in global warming.
Most VOCs are synthetic, but a few are naturally occurring, like the strong-smelling odours given off by a peeled onion or an orange. VOCs are irritants, rather than true allergens, and may provoke symptoms like sneezing, wheezing, watery eyes, and tight chest among people with allergies. Formaldehyde, a common VOC, is a known carcinogen. Exposure to VOCs is also a particular problem for people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.
Here are the most common possible sources of VOCs:
- Cleaning products
- Board-based furniture, flooring boards
- New carpets
- Air fresheners
- Dry-cleaned garments
- Non-iron/easy-care/crease-resistant fabrics
It is good to know that VOC levels in products will be coming down thanks to this new legislation. There are also measures you can take to reduce the VOC burden in your home. Ventilation is an important step in stopping levels from building up indoors, but during the winter time it becomes difficult to ventilate as much as you might like to. If you are very sensitive to VOCs, you should consider investing in an air purifier fitted with adsorbent filters designed to remove gaseous and odour pollution from the air. The leading Swiss manufacturer of domestic and commercial air purifiers offers a unit that is especially designed to filter VOCs out of the air - it is the IQAir GC VOC.
In fact, VOC 2010 doesn't apply to the consumer. If you have stocks of non-compliant paint, stain or varnish, you can use them up during 2011 and beyond. But, having read the above, would you really want to?
Chemical Air Pollution in the Clinical Research Environment
There has been a revolution in awareness of chemical air pollution in research laboratories. I could tell you several 'horror stories' of casual exposure to mercury vapour, benzene and chromic acid (the ultimate glassware cleaning agent) among innocent biomedical PhD students (including myself) in the 1970s. But researchers in hospitals, and other laboratories can never afford to be complacent about exposure to chemical air pollution, because there are so many different substances involved – and we still do not know too much about the long-term health effects of so many of them.
Chemicals used in the clinical research environment may be:
There could be hundreds of different chemicals used in the hospital research lab – some, like methanol, in large volumes, others, such as radioactive tracers, in tiny amounts. Hazard to health can arise (and be prevented) at any stage. For instance:
- Ordering – avoid bulk purchase, look for safer substitutes
- Storage – safe, secure, labelled
- Handling – with protective equipment, ventilation
- Disposal – protect the water supply, follow procedure
Solvents are an important group of chemicals used in the clinical research environment. They are needed in almost all procedures to dilute and dissolve. Probably the four most common are:
All four are classed as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), being liquids with a relatively low boiling point and a tendency to readily evaporate into the air. Thus exposure to a VOC by inhalation is a potential health hazard. These four solvents are also highly flammable and pose a fire hazard if not stored properly.
Let's focus on xylene, a colourless hydrocarbon (chemically related to toluene and benzene) which is widely used in processing tissue for making microscope slides. The health hazards of xylene have been known for many years and are described in a recent review, 'Xylene: An overview of its health hazards and preventive measures.' Short-term exposure causes effects on the central nervous system (headaches, dizziness), lungs (chest tightness, shortness of breath) and irritation of the eyes and throat. Longer-term exposure to xylene may result in a condition known as Organic Solvent Syndrome whose symptoms include:
- Impaired concentration
- Memory loss
A recent report links xylene and toluene exposure in hospital laboratory workers to an increased incidence of Raynaud's syndrome, a painful condition involving narrowing of the blood vessels in the hands.
Xylene is one of the 500 substances which have a Workplace Exposure Limit set through the UK Government's Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations. The limits set are 50 parts per million (ppm) for 8 hour exposure and 100 ppm for 20 minute exposure. The United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sets limits of 100 ppm and 200 ppm respectively for xylene exposure.
There are three ways of reducing the impact of xylene in the hospital research laboratory:
- Substitution. Various alternatives to xylene has been tried – none of them ideal. They include limonene (an extract of citrus fruit peel) and mineral oil. Research in 'green chemistry' continues to look for safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional chemicals in common use – so they may well come up with an improved substitute for xylene in due course.
- Air purification. Removing the contamination from the lab by use of air cleaning systems designed for research laboratories.
- Protection. Use of personal protective clothing like gloves is an essential when working with xylene.
PFC Pollution in the Office Environment
A new study suggests that exposure to chemical pollution could be a particular problem in the office environment. Researchers in the United States have found a link between Polyfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) in the air of a number of offices and their presence in the blood of the people working there.
Polyfluorinated Compounds are water and stain-resistant and they have been used for many years, for this reason, in a variety of everyday applications. These include:
- Non-stick cookware
- Windshield wash
- Carpet and furniture stain-protection coating
- Food-contact paper coatings
Because PFCs are also very resistant to degradation by heat and chemicals (which, of course, also makes them useful in their various applications), they do tend to accumulate in the environment. Their presence has long been noted in the air, water, wildlife, and the human body.
Does this matter? Research on exposure to PFCs in animals show an impact on liver health, cholesterol levels, early development, and immunity. Animal studies have also shown an increase in liver, pancreatic, and testicular tumours on exposure to Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), one of the most studied of the PFCs. There is less evidence for adverse effects in humans but there is a suggestion that exposure to PFOA is associated with lower birth weight, thyroid disease, and increased cholesterol levels. We also don't know too much about how PFCs get into the body. Exposure could occur through consuming PFC-containing food and water, and through breathing air containing the compounds, possibly adsorbed onto tiny dust particles.
In this new study, the researchers looked at the airborne route for PFC exposure. Their participants were 31 office workers based in Boston. Their office buildings were classified as follows:
- Building A (six offices) – newly built, with new carpets throughout the hallway and offices, and new furniture, including upholstered chairs.
- Building B (17 offices) – recent partial renovation with new carpets, but no new furniture or paint.
- The rest of the office buildings – no new furniture or paint, no carpeted hallway, though offices themselves had carpet.
The researchers did regular air sampling (both particles and gas) and obtained blood samples from the workers, analysing them for a number of key PFCs.
One PFC, known as Fluorotelomer Alcohol (FTOH) was present in it's highest levels in the air of the new office building (building A), the next highest was in the renovated building (building B) and at it's lowest level in the buildings that hadn't been renovated. The researchers believe that there is outgassing of FTOH from the new carpet, new upholstery and new paint. This gradual outgassing is well-known with formaldehyde.
In the body, FTOH does break down into PFOA, which was described above. Levels of PFOA in the blood were linked to levels of FTOH in the air. Exposure was linked to the amount of time the person spent in the office, with each extra hour resulting in an increase of 2% of the blood level of PFOA. The researchers also note that levels of FTOH are up to five times higher than have been previously noted in household air.
This is the first study to measure both environmental (air) and biological (blood) levels of PFCs. Therefore, exposure to PFCs in office air, particularly in new and renovated offices, is a potential health hazard (though we need to know much more about exactly what these hazards might be). The take-home message is that while a pleasant office environment is important, the new or renovated office may cause undue exposure to PFCs. Adequate ventilation and the use of an offiice air cleaning system is important (in this study, windows were closed most of the time and no air cleaning systems were used). Proper sampling of air quality and installing either free standing or HVAC integrated air cleaning systems are recommended to protect the health of office workers.
To learn more about the best air filtration for your office environment, contact us anytime at: 020 3176 0524 or firstname.lastname@example.org