• A Guide to Volatile Organic Compounds

A Guide to Volatile Organic Compounds

Mar 19 2019 Read 538 Times

Found everywhere from industrial factories to urban homes, volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, have emerged as a major health concern for populations across the globe. The issue is fuelled not only by air pollution, but also by exposure to synthetic materials that release a constant stream of organic chemicals into the atmosphere. 

Defining VOCs

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a volatile organic compound is defined as "any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions."

The organic chemicals are characterised by a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature and are released as gases from solid materials and liquid substances. VOC emissions can be obvious, like inhaling petrol fumes or breathing in cigarette smoke, or indirect, like using a chemical air freshener or sleeping on a memory foam mattress. 

Inside vs outside exposure

While exposure to VOCs is often caused by pollution, vehicle exhaust and fuel emissions, the EPA warns that levels of the organic chemicals can often be up to 1000 times higher indoors. The widespread adoption of synthetic materials means that the average home can contain as many as 100 types of VOCs, some easily detectable and others flying under the radar.

The dangers of volatile organic compounds

The body of research regarding exposure to VOCs is continually growing and while not all studies are accurate, many offer a glimpse of the dangers of exposure to volatile organic compounds. As well as inhalation, VOCs can also infiltrate the body via skin contact.

Short term exposure

  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Itchy eyes
  • Respiratory tract irritation
  • Memory problems

Long-term exposure

  • Nausea
  • Damage to internal organs like the kidneys and liver
  • Issues with the central nervous system
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Cancer

Minimising exposure to VOCs

Eliminating exposure to VOCs completely can be difficult, though with a few lifestyle changes it's possible to significantly reduce contact with the organic chemicals. Opting for natural products over their synthetic counterparts is generally a guaranteed way to minimise exposure to VOCs. This means opting for natural cleaning products, investing in an organic mattress, purifying the air and even using alkaline like baking soda to bind with VOC acids and keep them away from the lungs and skin.

For a closer look at the latest techniques being used to study VOCs don't miss 'Analysis of Volatile Compounds by GC-Headspace', which offers eLearners an introduction to  GC-Headspace and the chance to find out more about Honeywell Research Chemicals, a major global producer of solvents and reagents.

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