Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) – Effects on Health and Environment

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOC, are emitted as gases from certain solids and liquids containing organic solvents. VOC isn’t a gas by itself; instead, it’s a mixture of different chemicals that can adversely affect health. It’s kind of impossible to escape from VOCs as they’re emitted by thousands of products that play a significant role in our life. 

Household products like paint, cosmetics, cleaning products, disinfectants, etc., are some of the products responsible for the emission of VOCs into the environment. Although VOCs are very effective in forming the ozone layer, they also act as greenhouse gases and promote global warming.

Moreover, VOCs are hazardous to health. Constant exposure to VOCs can irritate the eyes, cause nausea, headache, and other nasty symptoms. Some VOCs can damage the central nervous system, and if that wasn’t enough, some of them could even cause cancer. Let’s explore Volatile Organic Compounds briefly.


volatile organic compound in air

How Volatile Organic Coumpounds are generated?

VOCs are nothing but organic chemicals released by certain solids or liquids. VOCs play an important role in the animal and plant kingdom as most animals rely on these VOCs for communication.

Some VOCs are beneficial for the ozone layer, and some cause harm to the environment and humans. VOCs can be our friendly enemy as they are necessary for life on earth to survive and evolve but also cause harm to the environment.

However, most of the VOCs released by human-made products generally don’t benefit the planet by any means.

So, how dangerous can VOCs be to humans?

Well, some VOCs can cause damage to the central nervous system and other organs, and some can even cause cancer. VOCs have the highest concentration indoors (up to 5 times higher than outdoors) as they’re released by thousands of household products like paint, cosmetics, disinfectants, etc.

However, these common VOCs are not toxic but may have adverse health effects in the long term.

VOCs’ concentration is especially higher in the newly formed buildings where a great amount of paint and other VOC-releasing products are being used. These VOCs are known to cause eye irritation and headaches.

Long story short, most of the VOCs that we encounter daily are harmful to the human body and the environment.


List Of Various Volatile Organic Compounds(VOCs)

Volatile Organic Compounds consist of various carbon compounds. Some of them are:

Alcohol

It is one of the most commonly used items for professional and other purposes. Alcohol is also commonly referred to as isopropyl alcohol, an alcohol group (-OH) in its compounds. It is very efficient when used in disinfectants and is the most crucial solvent in sanitizers.

It evaporates quickly and gets stored indoors in high concentrations. Having proper ventilation when using alcohol in closed areas can save you from the harmful effects of this volatile organic compound. 

Acetic Acid

The most common household item which serves as the source for this volatile organic compound is vinegar. Vinegar most commonly holds 4% of acetic acid, making it less of an issue, but too much of it can cause breathing issues and irritation in the throat, eyes, and nose. You must check the quantity of acetic acid when purchasing vinegar from the market. 

Acetone

Acetone is one of the most common VOCs that is present indoors in high concentration. High doses of this chemical can be harmful and can cause breathing problems. You can find acetone most commonly found in products like nail polish remover and wallpapers. Alcohol is less harmful than acetone; therefore, we recommend to use alcohol-based nail polish removers instead of acetone-based nail polish removers. 

Butanal

Butanal is one of the most common volatile organic compounds and is most commonly produced while having a barbeque party on a butane stove. These types of activities release a huge amount of butanal into the atmosphere. It’s necessary to keep this volatile organic compound outside of your home by doing such activities outdoors or having a good ventilation system. 

Dichloro Methane

Commonly referred to as methylene chloride, it’s commonly found in flame retardant chemicals and paint removers. Methylene chloride is one of the most dangerous volatile organic compounds out there, which means you have to be extra careful while dealing with products that contain this VOC. It evaporates very rapidly, making it easier to collect indoors if proper ventilation is not there. 

Formaldehyde

What is the most commonly used multi-purpose material used in almost everything?

Plastic.

Unfortunately, formaldehyde is present in plastic in abundance, making it the most common volatile organic compound. However, formaldehyde is not released on its own; you have to heat or burn plastic for that.

It’s necessary to have proper ventilation as you can’t escape from plastic; it’s everywhere in your house. It is also advisable to limit the use of plastic to limit the concentrations of formaldehyde in the house and the overall benefit of the planet. 

Ethanol

Another unavoidable VOC after formaldehyde is ethanol. Ethanol is simply unavoidable as it’s present in household products that we can’t live without, like detergents, dishwashers, glass cleaners, and many other types of cleaners. To maintain a better Indoor Air Quality or IAQ for short, make sure you have installed an air purifier or a good ventilation system as you can’t simply stop using these products. 

Vinyl Chloride

Ever heard the name PVC or Poly Vinyl Chloride?

It’s the most commonly used material for manufacturing pipes, floor covering, and other consumer goods. Commonly referred to as chloroethane, this VOC is used to make PVC, making it one of the most common and extremely dangerous volatile organic compounds.

Studies suggest that chloroethane is highly carcinogenic. It means that chloroethane causes cancer if constantly exposed to it. Apart from that, it’s dangerous for the liver. Workers working at the factory are at the most risk as they have to deal with this chemical daily for a long time. 

Some of the other carbon compounds in VOCs are:

  • Toluene
  • Xylene
  • Dichloromethane
  • Tetrachloroethylene
  • Styrene 
  • Chloroform
  • Ester
  • Mesitylene
  • Limonene
  • Naphthalene

effects of VOC

How Does VOC effect Health and Environment?

Causes Smog

Some VOCs are undoubtedly beneficial for forming the ozone layer, but a majority of them cause harm to the environment. One of those harms that VOCs cause to the environment is that it promotes the formation of smog. VOCs are one of the main causes of smog.

Vehicles and other industrial activities emit nitrogen oxide (NO2), which reacts with VOCs to form ozone. This reaction of ozone and nitrogen oxide results in the formation of fine particulates in the atmosphere. This mixture of fine particulates, ozone, and other pollutants results in smog formation, which can be very dangerous, especially on cold days.

Smog is known to cause road accidents around the world as it decreases visibility to a great extent. Smog becomes an even bigger problem under very strong sunlight. 

Apart from decreasing visibility, smog can have some severe impacts on the human body. Along with causing and worsening respiratory diseases like asthma, smog can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. If that wasn’t enough, constant long exposure to smog can permanently damage your lung tissue and cause some serious damage to your immune system.

Causes Global Warming

The majority of VOCs are naturally produced from natural sources like plants. Another major source of VOCs is oceans and human-made activities. These types of VOCs act as greenhouse gases. Although VOCs are less significant than direct greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, they affect the global average temperature to some extent. In a nutshell, VOCs contribute to global warming. 

Various Negative Health Effects

VOCs cause a multitude of health problems like respiratory diseases, headaches, nausea, etc. The chemicals that various VOCs include can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Shortness of breath, headache, and fatigue are common symptoms when one exposes to VOCs for a significant amount of time.

VOCs’ worst health effects become apparent when one exposes to the higher concentrations of the same. One of the places which contain or release higher concentrations of VOCs are new buildings and petrol pumps.

Paints and other chemicals are used in extensive quantities in new buildings, which produces various VOCs that are harmful to health. The evaporation of petrol and diesel is another major source of VOCs. However, you can easily avoid this evaporation of petrol and diesel by avoiding overfilling and accidental spilling of petrol. 

Contributes To The Formation Of Ozone Layer

Everyone knows the importance of ozone; it protects us from the cancer-causing harmful ultraviolet rays. The ozone layer is depleting at a rapid rate due to human activities. Gases like CFCs (Chloro Fluoro Carbon) are major contributors to depleting the ozone layer. 

Thankfully, some VOCs react with nitrogen oxide produced from vehicles and other industrial activities to form ozone. It particularly helps in slowing down the depletion of ozone which is a great thing. VOCs are both beneficial and harmful to the environment in one way or another. 


How Can You Remove VOC From Breathable Air?

VOCs are released into the air from a certain solid or liquid through a process known as off-gassing. They remain trapped in a certain solid or liquid, waiting to be released through off-gassing. These VOCs then get collected indoors and causes a lot of trouble to those constantly exposed to these VOCs. By now, you might have acknowledged how harmful VOCs are to the human body and how important it is to get VOCs out of your room or house. 

To remove VOCs from breathable air, you can either improve the room’s ventilation or install the best air purifier in India. The latter sounds more convenient and effective, so we’ll discuss just that.

Merely improving the ventilation may never be enough, especially when you or someone in your family is sensitive to VOCs. Installing an air purifier is probably the best way to deal with harmful VOCs. However, you have to be careful while getting an air purifier for your home.

There are different technologies used in different air purifiers; some may not fully do their job. You should know which of those technologies are the best in removing VOCs from breathable air. 

One of those air purifying technologies is using a carbon filter. A carbon filter removes the pollutants from the air using a process called adsorption. In this process, the pollutants stick to the adsorption bed containing tiny carbon particles, purifying the air.

It can be effective in removing VOCs in the short term until the adsorption bed has space for more particles. Then the adsorption bed gets saturated the device becomes useless. You need to replace the carbon filter repeatedly to ensure continued service, which is as daunting as it sounds. 

The Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO) technology, on the other hand, provides a powerful and effective way of air purification. The PECO technology destroys the VOCs passing through the filter, unlike carbon filters, which merely collect the VOCs on the surface.

It eradicates VOCs’ problem releasing back into the air when saturation of the adsorption bed is reached in carbon filter technology. This technology also doesn’t reduce the production of artificial ozone at the same time. 


Conclusion

First things first, you got to swallow the harsh truth that VOCs are a part of life; you cannot completely get rid of them. However, it is necessary to limit the exposure to these gases using every means feasible. After all, these VOCs are responsible for many respiratory diseases and can damage the Central Nervous System. Some VOCs are even known to cause cancer.

Protective measures like getting a good ventilation system and installing an air purifier can help fight harmful VOCs. Volatile organic compounds are friendly enemies as they also help in fighting the depletion of ozone while increasing the average global temperature.

You can’t also completely protect yourself from these VOCs as they’re mostly released from common household products like plastic and detergents, etc. You can only adapt and learn to live with them.


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Soumya

Soumya is the author of this article and editor-in-chief of Homeplace. Being an engineer with more than 7 years of working experience in various consumer goods industries with exposure to product development, manufacturing, maintenance and quality control, he is an expert in this field. He decided to combine all his experience blended with scientific analysis and research done Homeplace team into this blog. Comment below or contact if you have any query.

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