Volatile Organic Compounds VOCs can be as scary as they sound
One benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is the heightened awareness of indoor air quality and how this may be affected by airborne diseases, noxious gases and volatile organic compounds.
In the UK, where people spend an average of over 90% of their time indoors, it’s crucial for building managers to ensure optimal air quality for building inhabitants.
In this article, we’ll provide more information about volatile organic compounds and how organisations can monitor VOC levels to keep their occupants safe.
What are volatile organic compounds?
Volatile organic compounds (known as VOCs) refer to a group of volatile compounds and organic molecules that various products and processes emit into our atmosphere. At room temperature, VOCs have a high vapour pressure and a low water solubility, causing them to become volatile. VOCs are pollutants that present genuine risks to human health if people are exposed to them for long periods of time.
Where do VOCs come from?
VOCs in the atmosphere can be biogenically created by plants. These natural VOCs don’t pose a direct risk to the health of humans. However, it is estimated that only 5% of the VOCs emitted into the atmosphere in the UK are emitted from vegetation.
The rest comes from:
- Transport (50%)
- Solvent use (30%)
- Other industrial processes (15%)
These man-made compounds present a far greater health risk to people. And in an indoor environment, they are usually about ten times more concentrated.
- Air fresheners
- Cleaning products
- Office printers and copiers
- New furniture and carpets
- Wood preservatives
- Paints and paint strippers
- Building materials
- … and more
Common examples of VOCs we encounter include:
- Benzene from petroleum
- Formaldehyde, which common in many fabrics, coatings and building materials
- Acetone, found in wallpaper and nail varnish remover
- Ethanol from paints
- Butanone found in coating, glues and cleaning products
- Ethylene glycol, which is used in industrial solvents, paints and detergents
- Methylene chloride, which is used for degreasing, paint strippers, cleaning chemicals
What are the impacts of VOCs on human health?
There are several health risks that are associated with VOCs, the severity of which depends on the level of exposure and the nature of the VOC.
Along with things like liver and kidney damage (long-term exposure to high levels of VOCs), exposure to VOCs can also increase the risk of sick building syndrome. A person may get sick building syndrome from exposure to VOCs within a building. They can experience an array of symptoms, such as headaches, coughing, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, skin reactions, or irritation to the eyes, nose or throat.
A study from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health even suggests that exposure to fine particulate matter has a negative impact on cognitive functioning, which potentially reduces productivity in workplaces and academic performance in schools.
And with strict indoor air quality regulations and guidelines in place, it’s imperative that building managers monitor their VOC levels to ensure they are within safe limits.
How can VOC levels be monitored?
The simplest way to monitor VOCs and improve air quality in buildings is to install smart air quality monitors. These sensors measure air quality data in real time and offer highly accurate information on VOC levels. Linked to a cloud-based management system, data from the sensors can trigger instant alerts if an air quality risk is detected, and automated actions (such as opening windows or turning on air conditioning or ventilation systems) can work to remedy the issue. In addition, big data analytics capabilities can reveal the causes and fluctuations in air pollution over time.
Along with VOC levels, smart air quality sensors can also measure noxious gases, humidity, temperature and particulate matter levels, providing clear and accurate insights into your facility’s indoor air quality.
How to reduce exposure to VOCs
- Increase building ventilation to reduce the concentration of VOCs in the air around you
- Wearing suitable PPE when you come into direct contact with VOC-emitting materials
- Follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions if you’re using products that involve VOCs
- Pay careful attention to cleaning products and practices
- Install air quality sensors to continuously monitor air quality
With the right technology and the right know-how, building managers can control indoor air quality and mitigate the harmful long-term effect of pollutants, providing a safer, cleaner, healthier—and even a more productive—environment.
Article by Matthew Margetts, Director at Smarter Technologies. His background includes working for blue-chip companies such as AppNexus, AOL/ Verizon, and Microsoft in the UK, Far East and Australia.