All you need to know about volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
As humans, we spend an estimated 80-90% of our time indoors, 60% of which is spent inside our homes1. Studies show that indoor air is 7-10 times more polluted than outdoor air, meaning that we are exposed to poor air quality on a nearly constant basis. There are a variety of indoor air contaminants which range from biological to chemical to particulate matter (PM), all of which can have negative health effects, but this article concerns VOCs (or volatile organic compounds), what they are, and how we can protect ourselves from the dangers they pose.
What are VOCs?
VOCs are a form of gaseous chemical pollution. By definition, VOCs are hydrocarbons and other organic molecules that are released into the atmosphere by either vegetation (5% of emissions) or anthropogenic (95% of emissions) means. They are emitted by every-day products that we use in the home including paints, solvents, furniture, DIY work, and decorations. Buying a new piece of furniture or new fabric for your home can release formaldehyde, a dangerous VOC, for one to two years. Fragrances or sanitising sprays can also be a source of VOCs, although we may not naturally associate products that smell good with something that could be potentially dangerous for our health. Another fragrance that is often cited as a source of VOCs is the characteristic smell found in new cars. VOCs are often a significant component of odours in the home and workplace.
On the industrial scale, the main sources of anthropogenic VOC production are as following:
- Distribution and extraction – 50% of VOC emissions
- Transport (industrial and individual) – 30% of VOC emissions
- Solvent use – 30 % of VOC emissions
- Other processes created by industry – 15% of VOC emissions
There are hundreds of identified VOCs, but some of the most notable are formaldehyde (the most concerning in indoor air), organic solvents, glycol ethers, and hydrocarbons including benzene. Some VOCs are even carcinogenic. Butane, toluene, pentane, propane, ethanol, and “white spirit” are responsible for most of individual emissions of VOCs2.
Why are they concerning?
Based on a 1985 study, levels of VOCs in the home are 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors, regardless of whether the home is in a rural or urban setting. The exposure levels can reach 1000 times higher when using a product that is known to contain VOCs, such as paint stripper or similar3.
Short-term exposure to VOCs can lead to a variety of negative health effects some of which include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; and nausea.
Long-term exposure can lead to nervous system, kidney, or liver damage, and based on animal studies, some VOCs, such as benzene, are proving to be carcinogenic.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
According to the Public Health England (PHE), in the UK alone, the costs of air pollution last year were £42.88 million and will reach £5.3 billion by 2035 unless action is taken4. Combatting air pollution is a major undertaking, one that requires wide scale implementation of health and economic measures. Solutions are starting to pop up in both the public and private sectors including in schools and homes. Several policies have been put in place by the Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM) to monitor indoor air quality in the UK. For example, construction of new buildings (rental, residential, commercial, retail, education, community facilities, and healthcare) is now considering indoor air quality (IAQ) early on in the design process5.
There are simple ways to avoid VOC exposure in the home. Some are as simple as increasing ventilation in your home by opening a window or door or avoiding products containing VOCs altogether by purchasing eco-friendly, natural products whenever possible. If products containing VOCs must be used, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely to ensure safe usage of the product.
Fight indoor air pollution with Eoleaf
Another way to protect yourself from breathing in toxic fumes created by VOCs is to equip your home with an air purifier.
At Eoleaf, we specialise in air purification, and we sell top-of-the-line air purifiers that use scientifically-proven filtration methods to reduce indoor air pollution. Our powerful devices allow you to eliminate the three main sources of air pollution: particulate, chemical, and biological. All Eoleaf’s devices are equipped with HEPA-certified filters, meaning that our filters are capable of filtering 99.97% of particles of a size greater than or equal to a diameter of 0.01 µm in a single pass. They are capable of filtering out all fine particles and pollutants up to PM0.1, germs (bacteria and viruses), moulds and spores, and allergens (pollen, dust mites).
Suitable for needs at both the individual and professional scale, Eoleaf air purifiers have found success in hospitals, medical clinics, doctors’ offices, hairdressing salons, and nail salons, to name a few. Our air purifiers are the ideal solution to clean your indoor air and to protect your lungs from harsh VOCs.
1 Wellington House, Dimitroulopoulou, S., Shrubsole, C., Foxall, K., Gadeberg, B., & Doutsi, A., Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for selected Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the UK3–8 (2019). London; PHE Publications.
2 UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. (2016). Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) | Air Pollution Information System. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from https://www.apis.ac.uk/overview/pollutants/overview_vocs.htm
3 Dooner, M. (2020, September 7). Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - indoor air quality & health effects. Water Treatment Services. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from https://watertreatmentservices.co.uk/volatile-organic-compounds-indoor-air-quality/
4 GOV.UK. (2018, May 22). New tool calculates NHS and social care costs of air pollution. Public Health England. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-tool-calculates-nhs-and-social-care-costs-of-air-pollution
5 Institute of Environmental Sciences, Indoor Air Quality Guidance: Assessment, Monitoring, Modelling and Mitigation (2021). IAQM. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://iaqm.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/iaqm_indoorairquality.pdf