The increased use of chemicals in today’s consumer and industrial products means an increased risk of exposure to harmful substances. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are some of the most common, and they can also be some of the most dangerous.
VOCs are organically-occurring hydrocarbons that evaporate at room temperature, meaning they have high photochemical volatility, or photochemical reactivity. The extent of VOC emissions varies depending on the compound in question. Some evaporate more than others and therefore pose a greater risk.
To help people understand VOCs and their risks, and to help them learn about safe limits and other issues of air quality, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created a list of volatile organic compounds, classifying them according to just how volatile they are. Knowing this list, plus taing measure such as installing an indoor air quality monitor, will help limit exposure to Volatile organic compounds and other chemicals.
Overall, the EPA divides the list into three categories:
Very Volatile Organic Compounds (VVOC)
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)
Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOC)
VVOCs are the most dangerous, and will likely be found in higher concentrations. Here’s a breakdown of each type of VOC, as well as some of the more common chemicals in each group.
These are the chemicals most likely to evaporate and be found in the air. Some of the most common VVOCs are:
Used most commonly in gas grills and heaters, propane is both one of the most common VOCs and also one of the most dangerous. Grills should only ever be used outside, and also be sure to fully ventilate the area in the event of a propane leak.
Used for similar purposes as propane, butane is often found in things such as grills, torches, fridges and freezers. It’s a gas at room temperature and can be very harmful if inhaled in large concentrations. Be sure to keep areas where butane is being used well-ventilated.
Also known as methylene chloride, this is another common VOC. It is found in solvents and other aerosols, as well as flame retardant chemicals, such as those used in fire extinguishers. This particular volatile organic chemical has been known to cause environmental effects, such as ozone depletion. Limiting VOC emission and reducing emission standards are critical components of any protection effort.
These are some of the most common VOCs, although they are less dangerous than the VVOCs. Still, these chemicals are dangerous to human health, so it’s important to seek protection from them and to understand threshold limits and relevant standards and guidelines. This will ensure VOCs do not degrade indoor air quality and inundate the home with harmful chemicals.
The easiest way to ensure your environmental protection is to test the presence of organic chemicals.
Here are some of the most common VOCs:
Found in molded plastics and lacquers, this is one of the more common VOCs out there. Limit plastic use and look for formaldehyde-free finishes for use on furniture and other wood surfaces.
This VOC is found mostly in paints. To avoid it, look for products that are toluene-free. And when painting, always be sure the work area is well-ventilated.
The most common use of this VOC has always been nail polish removed. But nowadays it is usually found in wallpaper and furniture polish. Yet it’s easy to find products that do not use this chemical.
Most people have isopropanol, or isopropyl alcohol, or just alcohol, around the house. It is used as a solvent and a disinfecting agent. It evaporates quickly, which is why it is used as a cleaner. But this also means that it’s easy for large concentrations to make it into the air.
A man-made chemical, this VOC is most commonly used in fire extinguishers, refrigerants and cleaning products.
This particular VOC has a wide range of applications. Used mostly for industrial purposes, it’s primary function is as a non-polar solvent. However, it is a naturally-occuring substance, and it’s released from volcanic eruptions and marshes.
The primary use of this VOC is in piping, specifically PVC pipes, wire, and cable coatings. It’s also released when tobacco is burned, which is the most common source of exposure. Those living near factories where this chemical is produced are also at high risk of being exposed to the VOC.
These chemicals are less volatile than others, but exposure should still be limited. They are sometimes referred to as negligible photochemical since they are rarely found in high concentrations. Some of the most common are:
Pesticides (DDT, chlordane, phthalates)
Fire retardants (PCBs, PBB)
Maintain Air Quality
Understanding what VOCs are and the risks they pose is crucial to maintaining good indoor air quality. The EPA’s list is a good place to start, as are their emissions standards. Butt it’s important to constantly research the way VOCs can affect air quality and health.
Best Home Air Quality Monitor. Keep your home safe from harmful organic chemicals such as the gases mentioned above, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide
Main Sources of Nitrogen Oxides. Another volatile organic compound from which protection is needed. Find out how to limit exposure to this harmful chemical.
Units of Measure (Learn how VOCs are measured to better understand these chemicals and how to coordinate the best protection strategy.)