Understanding Volatile Organic Compounds (Chemicals)

Article Summary

This article describes Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), including our measurement methodology and common health effects associated with high VOC levels. 

Article Overview

 

VOCs Explained 

Awair Element measures and reports the concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds in your air, otherwise known as VOCs. VOCs are naturally occurring and man-made chemicals that have a range of health impacts. Products such as cigarettes, hair spray, building materials, and furniture all produce VOCs that range in severity and concentration. Awair devices all measure the total amount of VOCs (tVOCs) in the indoor area, which is the industry standard for measurement. This measurement should be understood as a hygiene metric: if VOCs are routinely high, you should identify the source to take action and consider ordering additional testing from specialized equipment. 

 

Health Effects of VOCs 

According to the EPA, “Studies from the United States and Europe show that persons in industrialized nations spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors. For infants, the elderly, persons with chronic diseases, and most urban residents of any age, the proportion is probably higher. In addition, the concentrations of many pollutants indoors exceed those outdoors.”  Because VOCs are such a common and prevalent indoor pollutant, exposure to them can have a variety of impacts on health and comfort. VOCs can contribute to a host of symptoms including headache, fatigue, eczema, and even cancer.

Exposure to moderate levels of VOCs can trigger allergies and asthma. They can cause nasal congestion, cough, wheezing, and pharyngtis (inflammation and soreness of the throat). Aside from respiratory symptoms, VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness, conjunctival irritation (irritation of the membrane covering the eyes and inside of the eyelids), allergic skin reactions, and fatigue. 

Higher levels of VOCs can include irritation of eyes and nasal passages, nausea and headaches, lethargy and malaise, rash, skin irritation, and eczema. 

Long term VOC exposure effects also contribute to overworking the liver and kidneys and has been linked to cognitive impairment, personality changes, and cancer.

Awair Element’s Total VOC index provides benchmarks to help you understand your daily exposure. 

 

Why are VOCs measured as a group instead of individually?

There are several different reasons that VOCs are treated as a group instead of individually. 

The EPA’s Technical Assistance Document for Sampling and Analysis of Ozone Precursors lists more than 90 target VOCs that have potentially negative health effects while their Substance Registry Service lists over 230 VOCs.

VOCs tend to co-occur, meaning that if some of the VOCs in the above list are present, others coming from the same sources are likely present as well. Ventilation or removal of the source will generally be equally effective for most or all VOCs present.

VOCs have a cumulative effect on health and comfort. For example, numerous VOCs are asphyxiants. Asphyxiants displace oxygen in the blood. If a person inhales multiple asphyxiants, each one is working to displace oxygen in that person’s blood and the effects that the chemicals have on that person are compounded. 

Since VOCs occur as a group and can often be treated as a group, measuring and reporting each chemical individually is impractical. Measuring and dealing with them as a group is simpler and far more effective.

 

Which VOCs Can Awair Element Detect? 

Awair Element’s tVOC sensor is calibrated to detect the following chemicals;

Acetone

Acetic Acid

Toluene

m- & p-Xylenes

n-Undecane

n-Dodecane

Nonanal

n-Decane

o-Xylene

d-Limonene

Benzene

1,1,1-Trichloroethane

Hexanal

Ethanol

Ethanal

Isoprene

Methanol

Isopropanol

Ethylbenzene

1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene

Tetrachloroethene

Phenol

Ethyl acetate

2-Butanone

Styrene

TXIB

4-Ethyltoluene

2-Butoxyethanol

2-Ethyl-1-hexanol

Nonane

Octane

Butyl acetate

n-Hexane

Pentanal

1,3,5-Trimethylbenzene

a-Pinene

Texanol 1&3

4-Methyl-2-pentanone

Napthalene

1-Butanol

1,4-Dichlorobenzene

3-Methyl pentane

Trichloroethene

Methylene chloride

Trichlorofluoromethane

t-Butyl methyl ether

Trichloro-trifluoroethane

Chloroform

Carbon tetrachloride

4-Phenylcyclohexene

Carbon disulfide

Chlorobenzene

1,2,4-Trichlorobenzene

1,2-Dichlorobenzene

 

What steps can I take to reduce my Chemical reading?

Ventilation: it’s important to have proper ventilation. If you are using cleaning products, adhesives, or paints it’s a good idea to open a window. Also, since VOCs slowly evaporate off of many things that will always be in your home or office, such as carpeting, it’s not a bad idea to ventilate once in a while even if you aren’t actively using products that produce VOCs.

Storage: materials that cause a lot of indoor pollution should be stored away from living and working areas. Make sure that heavy VOC contributors such as paint are stored outside of the home or tightly sealed in a garage if possible.

Air purification: air purifiers can drastically improve your air quality, especially if you have one that targets VOCs specifically. If you have an air purifier, make sure to check the filter regularly. Certain plants such as English Ivy or Boston Fern can also be helpful. Having two plants per 100 square feet can make a big difference.

Moderation: using perfumed substances, cleaning products, or other VOC contributors occasionally isn’t a bad thing. However, excessive use can contribute heavily to VOC pollution. For example, burning a scented candle once in a while is fine. Doing it daily can contribute heavily to the pollution in your home. The same goes for many of the materials listed above such as adhesives and cleaners.

It’s impossible to avoid all VOCs and all indoor air pollution. However, by making conscious choices about ventilation, the materials, and products you use, how often you use them and where you store them, you can drastically reduce the levels of VOC pollution in the air.

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