What is a VOC?
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a wide range of naturally and synthetically occurring chemicals that are found almost everywhere on earth. They are described as volatile because they evaporate at standard temperature and pressure, releasing molecules into the atmosphere. VOCs are also extremely useful as they form the building blocks of many synthetic materials (plastics, rubbers, glues, paints, etc.), and are used to create pharmaceuticals and are a great fuel for transport and heating.
Health and safety issues
As VOCs exist as a gas at room temperature the main exposure route is through breathing. Exposure to harmful VOCs can happen at home, outdoors, or in the workplace.
Some sources of VOCs in a domestic and light industrial setting include building materials, furniture, carpets, heating and cooking systems, stored solvents, and cleaning products. Generally, VOCs are released slowly from these sources giving off low levels and would not cause a problem. However, modern buildings have low air exchange rates which can cause concentrations to easily rise to harmful levels. This has been emphasised during the Covid-19 pandemic where good air flow and air exchange are an easy way to ensure any virus in the air is removed from the space and helps reduce the risk from aerosol transmission, when someone breathes in small particles (aerosols) in the air after a person with the virus has been in the same enclosed area. VOCs are now widely recognised as a major contributor to sick building syndrome which in turn compromises Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).
Air pollution is now something we are all aware of and is often included on weather forecasts. VOCs are themselves directly an air pollutant but also have secondary effects. When sunlight and heat react with VOCs, specifically sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides which can be released from many industrial processes as well as motor vehicles ozone is generated, and smog is formed.
The individual components of smog can compromise human health and harm the environment – mixed they form a deadly cocktail. Smog can cause or aggravate health problems such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory problems. The ozone in the smog also inhibits plant growth and can cause widespread damage to forests and crops.
But it is not just in the air VOCs can be found they are can also be found in our wastewater or contaminating our land. Most contamination found in our water systems are from industrial wastewater and studies have found toxic gases up to 46 ppm around manhole covers of VOCs including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene (BTEX) and tetrachloroethane.
The two most common places to find VOCs with in is brown field sites where industry has left contaminated land and historic or disused landfill sites. Removal of these harmful VOCs can be done by cleaning the soil and is known as soil remediation, but while it is expensive there are many companies that offer this service and has a high success rate to clean contaminated land.
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