Air pollution is now something we are all aware of and is often included alongside UV levels on weather forecasts.
VOCs themselves are directly an air pollutant but also have secondary effects. When sunlight and heat react with VOCs, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (gasses released from many industrial processes and vehicles) ozone is generated and smog is formed.
The individual components of smog can compromise human health and harm the environment –mixed together 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.
Health and Safety issues
Health and Safety issues – Whilst many VOCs have no adverse effects on health and the environment, some are harmful. Health effects include eye, nose and throat irritation from short-term exposures (think about a whiff of superglue) and long-term exposure to very low concentrations you are not aware of (parts per billion) may cause damage to liver, kidneys, central nervous system and cancers.
As VOCs exist as a gas at room temperature the main exposure route is through normal respiration. Exposure to harmful VOCs can happen at home, outdoors or in the workplace.
Domestic and light industrial sources of VOC include building materials, furniture, carpets, heating and cooking systems, stored solvents and cleaning products. Generally, VOCs are released slowly from these sources and would not cause a problem. However, modern buildings have low air exchange rates (to reduce heating and air conditioning costs) therefore concentrations can easily rise to harmful levels. VOCs are now widely recognised as a major contributor to sick building syndrome compromising Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).
In medium and heavy industries, there are more sources of VOCs and higher concentrations can also exist. Here, VOCs pose additional threats. VOC vapours are heavier than air and may displace oxygen in confined spaces posing an asphyxiation risk to workers. VOCs also have relatively low lower explosive limits (LEL) than common gases. For example, methane, the major component of natural gas has a lower explosive limit of 4.4% by contrast VOCs commonly found in the workplace have LELs of 1%.
Download our Guide: What is a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)?