What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
‘Volatile organic compounds and ‘VOCs’, like particulate matter, does not refer to one specific substance. VOCs are a group of substances that display similar chemical properties, emitted from a variety of solids and liquids. VOC concentrations tend to be higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors, but are of concern wherever they are emitted due to their potential to have negative impacts on health.
VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products, from household products, to paints, varnishes and wax which all contain organic solvents, and many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing and hobby materials. VOCs are often harder to trace than other forms of air pollutants because they may not have an odour, and can come from so many different sources.
Building materials utilised in the construction sector are known to emit VOCs. Wood panels and a range of building materials give off these toxic compounds which remain in the air as pollution. Commonly harmful substances emitted in the building sector include formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, phenol, glycol ethers and methylene chloride. These sources tend to be categorised within solid building materials and liquid building materials.
VOCs can react with nitrogen oxides (NOx) to form ground level ozone, which directly contributes to climate change and global warming and can cause slowed growth rate in plants, trees and crops as well as other significant impacts on ecosystems and wildlife.
The health impact of volatile organic compounds are specifically concerning because they tend to be chronically, rather than acutely, toxic and so their effects can be hidden until some time after exposure. A particularly damaging VOC is benzene, with adverse health effects including anaemia and leukaemia. It is commonly found in the manufacture of many man-made compounds, like some rubbers, dyes and detergents and is therefore even more hazardous because of its regular usage.
The effects of most low-level VOC exposure are frequently not felt for many months or years. Exposure through inhalation poses the most risk, as the vapour is able to pass through the thin membrane of the lungs directly into the bloodstream. The results can range from irritation of the respiratory tract to damage of the nervous system and cancer.
Long-term neurological symptoms from exposure to VOCs can include impaired memory, reaction times, balance and hand-eye coordination, mood disorders (presenting as depression, irritability, and fatigue) can also be common.
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