If you are a building or facilities manager, you're probably quite preoccupied with air quality at the moment. (Heck, you don't have to be a building or facilities manager to be preoccupied with indoor air quality right now.) You have a decent idea of most enemies you need to defeat; viruses, bacteria, dust, pollen, particulate matter, fungi, etc. However, there's one villain who can be a bit more enigmatic: VOCs. But what exactly are VOCs, and how are they removed from the air? In this two-part article, we will give you the secrets you need to defeat this menace.
What are VOCs anyway?
Quite simply, VOC stands for "Volatile Organic Compound." These substances are "volatile" meaning they evaporate easily and "organic" meaning they contain carbon. There are thousands of types of VOCs, ranging from highly complex synthetics to natural compounds. Most VOCs are clear liquids in their pure form, but their quick evaporation also means it's very easy for humans to inhale them. They tend to enter the air of homes and businesses via a wide range of substances-paints, carpets, furniture, smoking, heating...the list goes on and on. Nearly any new product is going to offgas a certain amount of VOCs.
Let's go over the properties and sources of 15 common VOCs found both in homes and in the workplace. We will also describe the effects of these 15 organic chemicals on human health. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should give you a good idea of your organic enemy's methods.
Note: Nothing in this article should be construed as legal or medical advice, nor does it replace local, state, or federal safety guidelines. Instead, this article should be considered an invitation to learn more about VOCs and air quality.
List of common VOCs
- Acetaldehyde: Fruity-smelling, flammable compound; Formula: CH3CHO; Industries at risk for exposure: Food (packaging and preserving), pharmaceutical, manufacturing (paints, dyes, perfumes, lubricants, explosives, building materials); Sources of consumer inhalation: Acetaldehyde enters the air via wood and cigarette smoke; Health effects: As an air pollutant, acetaldehyde may irritate or damage the lungs, eyes, and blood vessels. It is also a possible carcinogen. (Fun fact: acetaldehyde is also to blame for hangovers, but that has to do with the acetaldehyde produced naturally by your body, not the acetaldehyde in the air.); Exposure limits: 200 parts per million (ppm) for an eight-hour shift.
- Acetone: Pungent, colorless solvent; Formula: CH3COCH3; Industries at risk for exposure: According to the Australian government: "Acetone is produced as a result of manufacturing basic chemicals, plastic products, non-ferrous metals, iron and steel, fabricated metal products, motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts, photographic and scientific equipment, wood products, ceramic products, cement, lime, plaster and concrete products, meat and meat products, rubber products, paper, paper products and industrial machinery. Acetone is also emitted from printing processes, mineral, metal and chemical wholesaling, water supply, sewerage and drainage services and coal mining." Well then, that covers nearly everything, doesn't it; So which industries are the greatest concern? According to the CDC, "Workers in certain industries, such as certain paint, plastic, artificial fiber, and shoe factories are likely exposed to much higher levels of acetone than the general population. Professional painters, commercial and household cleaners[...]" are also at risk; Sources of consumer inhalation: Acetone is produced by the body in small amounts. However, significant indoor air sources include nail polish remover, furniture polish, tobacco smoke, and wallpaper; Health effects: If consumed, acetone is bad news. When inhaled, however, acetone is merely a source of minor irritation...most of the time. Extreme and unusual levels of acetone exposure may cause menstrual irregularities, vomiting, fainting, and poor performance on neurobehavioral tests; Exposure limits: 250 ppm as a time-weighted average over a 10-hour shift.
- Benzaldehyde: Smells like bitter almonds or rather, bitter almonds smell like benzaldehyde, since benzaldehyde is what gives them their smell; Formula: C6H5CHO; Industries at risk for exposure: Cosmetics and plastic manufacturing are at risk. Food packagers working with artificial almond flavoring may also be exposed; Sources of consumer inhalation: Perfumes, dyes, flavorings, and solvents. Benzaldehyde might also offgas from certain home appliances; Health effects: As a vapor, benzaldehyde isn't much to worry about beyond some minor irritation, at least according to one source. Another source we found says it may produce coughing and shortness of breath. As a liquid, skin contact may result in a rash. Some animal studies have demonstrated concerning health problems from exposure; Exposure limits: n/a