Towards A Better Understanding Of Volatile Organic Compounds

While it might be like riding a roller coaster, all industrial facility managers should have a good understanding of what volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are, the potential health risks of VOCs, the types of products in which they are most commonly found, and should be aware of some misunderstandings about them.

Mnet 176748 Indoor Air Quality

The discussion of volatile organic compounds — commonly referred to as VOCs — in trade publications such as this is like riding a roller-coaster. We hear about them most often when:

  • There are indoor air quality issues in a facility
  • If building users become ill because of exposure to VOCs
  • As a result of new government regulations — or in this day and age — the removal of government regulations dealing with VOCs.  

Then the discussion of VOCs seems to disappear, at least for a while.

While it might be like riding a roller coaster, all industrial facility managers should have a good understanding of what VOCs are, the potential health risks of VOCs, the types of products in which they are most commonly found, and should be aware of some misunderstandings about them. 

So, let’s begin. 

The “volatile” in VOCs refers to chemicals that evaporate or easily get into the indoor air at room temperatures. “Organic” means that these chemical compounds are carbon based.

VOCs are found in both outdoor (where they are up to ten times higher in concentration) and indoor environments. For the managers of industrial facilities, our principal concern here is VOCs that might be present in the indoor environment, which can impact indoor air quality.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), volatile organic compounds are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. When inhaled, some have short- and others have long-term adverse health effects.  Invariably, most all VOCs do pose some health risks and negatively impact indoor air quality depending on concentration and other factors. 

These health risks can include the following:

  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation 
  • Headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea 
  • Damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system 
  • Allergic skin reaction 
  • Breathing problems 
  • Cognitive issues (impaired thinking)

When we think of the products that contain VOCs, we often think of professional cleaning products, building materials, adhesives and glues, aerosols; paints, fabrics, carpets, and building materials.  But this is just a partial list.  VOCs are also found in furniture, bedding materials, paint, many types of solvents used in industrial locations, upholstery, copy machines and the toners they use, and more. 

The reality is they are found in thousands of different types of products used every day in industrial locations, and there is an excellent reason for this: they work. Manufacturers have traditionally used VOCs to improve the effectiveness of a product, for instance, the efficacy of a cleaning solution; to ensure a building material is more durable and lasts longer; or to ensure that an adhesive works better and dries faster or a paint covers more effectively. 

But Aren't VOCs Being Removed?

Many manufacturers are now investing time and money to develop products that no longer contain VOCs or have a reduced amount. When they succeed at this, they proudly add this to their product’s label and marketing material. Unfortunately, we must look a bit more closely at the products and what is meant by “no” or “reduced” VOCs.  

What they are typically referring to is that the cleaning solution, building material, glue, or any of thousands of other products being used by consumers, have no ozone depleting VOCs.  

There are two types of ozone, one bad and one good. Ground level ozone, found in the air we breathe, is "bad"; this is pollution and can be harmful. “Good” ozone, on the other hand, refers to ozone in the stratosphere, protecting life on Earth. When a product says it has no VOCs, they are referring to those compounds that deplete the good ozone.

Some administrators may believe this is a form of "greenwashing." Greenwashing, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary is "disinformation disseminated by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image." 

However, that is not what is happening in this situation. This is because they are following the guidelines of virtually all of the significant green-certification organizations.  Only a few green certification organizations such as GREENGUARD, the Carpet and Rug Institute, and a small number of other certification organizations focus on ground-level ozone emissions.

Addressing This Situation

Because we know that many of the products labeled as having few or no VOCs may still contain them, and these may be harming indoor air quality, it would seem that most green-certification agencies would update their standards and guidelines to address this.  However, most are not. What has happened in the past decade or longer is that the larger green-certification organizations have decided to "specialize," focusing on specific industries and business sectors. As serious an issue as this may seem to many, it appears as not to have reached this level of seriousness for these organizations.

So how can the administrators of industrial locations make sure the products they use for their operations genuinely do have few or no VOCs that can negatively impact indoor air quality? The best option is to look for products that have been dual-certified.  For instance, the label will indicate that the product has been certified by Green Seal or UL/Environment, both leading certification organizations, as well as GREENGUARD, which puts more focus on VOCs in the air we breathe.

Mike Watt, Director of Training and New Product Development at AvmorMike Watt, Director of Training and New Product Development at Avmor

So now that we know a bit more about VOCs, we must realize that while the discussion of volatile organic compounds may go up and down like a roller coaster, VOCs are still with us every day and can be harming indoor air quality. Regardless of the level of discussion, VOCs never go in and out of fashion; for industrial facility administrators, this means they must remain vigilant, consistently taking steps to protect the air their staff breathes.

Mike Watt is Director of Training and New Product Development at Avmor, a Canadian manufacturer of professional cleaning solutions.

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