Humans Are Largest Producers of VOCs in Indoor Air

Guest Author: Jackie Quinlan

People and their possessions produce up to 57% of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air. VOCs can react in the air to form secondary pollutants, such as the carcinogen formaldehyde, which are harmful to health and linked to Sick Building Syndrome.

Not surprisingly, as we spend as much as 90% of our time inside, where concentrations of VOCs are consistently higher than outside, these compounds could have significant implications for our health and the wider environment. As the laws are tightening on the use of VOCs, what do we really know about these compounds polluting our air and what they can mean for our health and the environment?

What Are VOCs?

smokestacks, VOCs, air pollution, volatile organic compoundsThe US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes VOCs as any carbon compound, apart from carbon monoxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, carbon dioxide and ammonium carbonate, that contributes to photo-chemical reactions in the atmosphere. Cleaning products, deodorants, soap, cosmetics, wall paints, varnishes and architectural and industrial maintenance (AIM) coatings emit VOCs, which are invisible carbon-based chemicals.

Studies into health and environmental problems linked with VOCs have found that petroleum-based chemicals in consumer products can emit more pollution than vehicles do. The household products that people are using every day in their homes are actually producing more than double the emissions of cars. The average home is thought to have levels of VOC around 10 times higher than outdoors.

Environmental and Health Concerns

It’s thought that there are up to 900 VOC chemicals in our indoor air. These have come from a variety of household products such as air fresheners, household paint, cosmetics and disinfectants. Exposure to air pollution is the fifth-biggest human health risk following malnutrition, diet, high blood pressure and tobacco.

cleaning products, household cleaners, VOCs, indoor air pollutionIt’s estimated that globally, every year as many as 4 million people die from illnesses linked to household air pollution. Inhaling VOCs can aggravate asthma and allergies and cause problems with breathing and nausea. Inhaling VOCs can also damage organs and the central nervous system. In some more extreme cases, it can even lead to cancer.

VOCs in the air produce smog which lowers vegetation’s ability to photosynthesize, stunting growth and increasing the chance of some trees and plants to develop diseases. This will have a significant impact on the quality of wildlife habitats and nutrient and water cycles.

US VOC Regulations

In 1998, the EPA established the National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standards for Consumer Products to maintain air quality.  These standards regulate VOC limits for a variety of consumer products. Many US states, however, particularly California, have drafted their own VOC content limits, which are even stricter than EPA’s limits.

The EPA has also set acceptable limits for smog through the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (Naaqs) for ground-level ozone. Any US Regions that fail to meet these levels are classified as “non-attainment.” They must create state implementation plans (SIPs) that outline how they will become compliant.

A Regulatory Web

VOC smog, VOCs volatile organic compoundsThe different regulations across the US can make it a challenging issue for the industry. Products with higher VOC limits can be sold in Nevada legally for example, but are illegal in neighboring California.

The Commercial Products Association and The American Coatings Association help companies to keep track of regulations, maintaining a matrix of VOC limits in over 100 product categories, and also provides training to industry.

US industry is understandably frustrated with the inconsistent regulations implemented across the country. A national policy on VOC limits that all states could adhere to would help manufactures and ensure consistency across the industry.