Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, refer to organic chemical compounds with significant vapor pressures that can affect the environment and human health.
VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids and include of a variety of chemicals that may have adverse short and long-term health effects. VOCs are numerous, varied, and ubiquitous, including both man-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds.
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VOCs come from a wide array of products. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials such as glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions.
Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to 10 times more) than outdoors. Because the symptoms are slow to develop and concentrations are usually low, analysis of VOCs can be a challenging process.
Some of the common symptoms are eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.
Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. The ability of VOCs to cause health effects varies from those that are highly toxic to those with lesser known health effects.
Steps to reduce exposure
- Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs.
- Use household products according to manufacturer’s directions.
- Provide plenty of fresh air when using these products.
- Throw away unused or little-used containers safely.
- Buy in quantities that you will use soon.
- Keep out of reach of children and pets.
- Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.
Biologically derived VOCs
A majority of VOCs arise from plants. One indication of this flux is the strong odor emitted by many plants. The emissions are affected by a variety of factors, such as temperature, which determines rates of volatilization and growth, and sunlight, which determines the rate of biosynthesis. Emissions occur almost exclusively from leaves; stomata in particular.