HSE Impacts of VOCs
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are substances with low boiling points that evaporate from solids or liquids used in industrial processes, for example, formaldehyde evaporating from paint, or benzene from fuel. Workplace exposure limits (WEL) are the legal limits set on the amount of substances that can be present in workplace air. Hazardous substances must be below the relevant workplace exposure limit.
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
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.
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