Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): sources and health impacts

We spend most of our time in enclosed spaces: at work, at home, at school… but due to many factors and pollutants, indoor air is 7 times more polluted than outdoor air. Among the most common pollutants are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful to health. What are the sources of VOCs and their effects on human health?

Reading time: 4 minutes

 

Summary

What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
What are the sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
What are the environmental and health impacts of volatile organic compounds?
How to protect yourself and reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

As air pollutants, volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, refer to all highly volatile molecules: all molecules formed of hydrogen and carbon atoms (hydrocarbons), as well as nitrogen, chlorine, sulphur or oxygen molecules.

They are therefore a multitude of substances that may be of natural origin (biogenic substances) or of human origin (anthropogenic substances). 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a combination of gases, vapours and odours that evaporate more or less quickly depending on the ambient temperature.

The most well-know are:

👉Formaldehyde,

👉 Benzene,

👉 Acetone,

👉 Ethanol

👉 Butane

Present in and escaping from various materials and products in daily life, VOCs volatilize and change the chemical composition of the ambient air and are therefore considered pollutants.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): what are the sources? 

There are many sources of VOCs emissions.

🌇 Outdoor sources of VOCs

Outdoor sources of volatile organic compounds

Outside, volcanoes, forests, plant emissions and fermentations are all sources for the emission of these gases. In cities, they are mainly produced by human activities (exhaust fumes, combustion, use of fertilisers and solvents, etc.).

🏠  Indoor sources of VOCs

Inside, VOCs come from many products used in buildings on a daily basis, such as: perfumes, candles and open fires, cooking fumes, new furniture, cleaning products, children’s toys, etc.

Indoor sources of volatile organic compounds
Indoor sources of volatile organic compounds

Inside, VOCs come from many products used in buildings on a daily basis, such as: perfumes, candles and open fires, cooking fumes, new furniture, cleaning products, children’s toys, etc.

Volatile organic compounds: impacts on health and the environment

🌍 The impact of VOCs on the environment 

In the atmosphere, volatile organic compounds can have harmful effects on the environment. As they break down, they cause many reactions and disturb the chemical balance.

By reacting with nitrogen oxides (NOx), VOCs contribute to the formation of PM2,5 and tropospheric ozone, thus indirectly contributing to global warming. Methane (CH4), a member of the VOC family, causes ice to melt or sea levels to rise globally.

Some VOCs contribute to the phenomenon of acid rain, which damages buildings and harms animals and plants.

💙  The impact of VOCs on health  

Depending on the nature of the volatile substances, their concentration and the nature of the exposure, the effects on human health may be more or less significant.

Short-term effects

👉Headaches

👉 Olfactory discomfort

👉 Irritation of the skin and mucous membranes

👉 Tiredness

👉 Coughing, painful breathing

👉 Pneumonia, bronchitis

Long-term effects

👉Central nervous system is impaired (headaches, anxiety)

👉 Cardiovascular diseases

👉 Respiratory diseases (asthma)

👉 Cancers

👉 Impacts on liver, spleen, blood

👉 Impacts on the reproductive system

Short-term effects

👉 Headaches

👉 Olfactory discomfort

👉 Irritation of the skin and mucous membranes

👉 Tiredness

👉 Coughing, painful breathing

👉 Pneumonia, bronchitis

Long-term effects

Impaired central nervous system 👈

Cardiovascular diseases 👈

Respiratory diseases (asthma) 👈 

Cancers 👈

Impacts on liver, spleen, blood 👈

Impact on the reproductive system 👈 

Some volatile organic compounds such as benzene or formaldehyde, if present in high concentrations in ambient air, can have carcinogenic/carcinogenic effects on humans, lead to gene mutations, or be toxic for reproduction.

How to protect yourself and reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

To reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds indoors, a few simple actions can improve air quality at home or in the workplace.

👉Ventilate the room daily;

👉 Ensure good air renewal through well-maintained and adapted ventilation;

👉 Choose your furniture and materials carefully and favour A+ labels;

👉 Favour “traditional” cleaning products such as white vinegar, black soap, bicarbonate of soda to avoid interactions between different substances;

👉 Avoid odorous products (room fragrances, incense, candles);

👉 Install indoor air quality sensors to monitor and quickly know the level of VOCs (and other pollutants) in the room.

Measuring and monitoring volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with Meersens solutions

To monitor indoor air pollution and in particular volatile organic compounds (VOCs), Meersens offers the deployment of easily deployable sensors to monitor and analyse all major pollutants in the workplace to ensure employee health and productivityContact us today for more information!

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