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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a set of chemical substances that tend to enter gaseous state during normal ground level atmospheric conditions. Owing to various chemical properties, VOCs have numerous uses in industry and in preparing consumer goods of different types, but since they also easily enter the atmosphere, their impact upon health must also be carefully investigated and, where necessary, regulated by government.
VOCs may be produced naturally, through the waste products of animals, or through by-products of hydrocarbons such as petroleum and its derivatives. VOCs may enter land and water sources as contaminants or become present in indoor air, increasing pollution of the air and possibly causing negative health impacts. Somewhat unfortunately, the tendency to increase energy efficiency in housing has led to a greater proportion of air retained inside accommodation, which has led to more indoor air pollution. This can cause minor symptoms, such as eye watering, headaches, and nausea, and more serious effects such as organ damage and cancer.
The main categories of VOCs include mostly carbon-based molecules such as hydrocarbons and aldehydes. A significant outdoor naturally occurring pollutant is methane, which, escaping into the atmosphere, is an important contributor to greenhouse gas global warming. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has led research to determine the presence of VOCs both indoors and outdoors in a range of different locations. The presence of VOCs indoors has been found at up to five times the level of outdoor pollutants.
The possibility of VOCs in commercially available products causing negative health impacts has led to a burgeoning industry in lawsuits relating to possible negligence. Consequently, much effort is being spent on defining what are and what are not VOCs and to what extent separate sub-categories of the chemicals should be permitted in domestic use. This is likely to increase in the near future as the long-term health impacts of exposure become clearer and the introduction of new chemical substances and their interaction with existing products is studied more intensely. This will in turn stimulate the creation of new technologies to deal with problems caused by VOCs and the meaning of regulations necessary to supervise their production. Both domestic occurrence and workplace hazards will need to be included in these evaluations as the range of products emitting VOCs is increasing.
- Alpha Barry and Diane Corneau, “Effectiveness of Barriers to Minimize VOC Emissions Including Formaldehyde,” Forest Products Journal (v.56/9, 2006);
- Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov;
- E. Hester and R.M. Harrison, eds., Volatile Organic Compounds in the Atmosphere (Royal Society of Chemistry, 1995).