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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Effects of Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have become the greatest challenges to the preservation of the environment today. This group of chemicals is used in almost every sphere of life from industries, government institutions and domestically by both an ignorant and knowledgeable public (Brookhaven National Laboratory 2008). This paper aims to put to light examples of such compounds, look at the effect on the general populace and the environment and outline possible remedies to negative impacts. At the same time, it is important to look at how these compounds can be used or disposed in a better way for a better environment for both man and nature, a program termed as living green.

VOCs are the kind of chemicals that evaporate when exposed to air, a process known as volatilization. The fact that these chemicals contain carbon makes them organic substances (Brookhaven National Laboratory 2008). According to Zogorski, these compounds may occur naturally or as a result of human activity while others can result from both sources. It is possible to isolate these compounds from a sample of water by purging a sample with the inert gas helium. These compounds have a lower boiling point than water and can be gaseous even at room temperature. They include propane, formalhyde, benzene and gasoline products (US Department of Interior 2010).
The Distribution of VOCs in the Environment
For a long period of time, products containing VOCs have been released into the air, in water and the ground. The compounds have found way into the ground due to spillage, or when rain mixes with emissions from factories and gasoline powered machines. Most of the VOCs get into the ground through the hundreds of septic systems and cesspools. Due to lack of air in the soils below, VOCs usually remain in the ground water,¬¬ since they cannot volatize, until they naturally decay, dilute or biodegrade. While in the water below, the compounds definitely flow into wells and rivers where they can be easily consumed by man and animals (Brookhaven National Laboratory 2008).
There are thousands of home use products that contain VOCs thus putting the user to risk. Such manufactured products include sprays, rug and oven cleaners, paints, dry-cleaning fluids, office copiers and printers, glues and adhesives, building materials and products used in photography and home furnishings. Pesticides also contain VOCs (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2010). This means that if there are 10 homes in a neighborhood, each home with an average of 4 people, then all the 40 people (100%) are at risk of being exposed to VOCs at one time or the other. The U.S, with an estimated population of above 300 million, with its vast industrial base contributes to large amounts of pollution. Untreated gases in the air and industrial wastes in the soils and waters put the entire population at risk of absorbing the compounds most of which are known carcinogens.
Vehicle emissions are thought to contain some of the highest levels of VOCs. The estimated car ownership ratio in the U.S is one car per two people. Over ¾ of the population thus own a car thus high rate of emissions. However, the density of outdoor levels easily decreases than that of compounds trapped in buildings. This is so because almost all the materials used to put up a state of the art structure contains these highly poisonous compounds. Such materials include paint, adhesives, wall boards, ceiling walls and paint thinners. Thus the longer a person spends at such buildings, the more exposed they become to the adverse effects of the VOCs. Particle boards used for making furniture and carpets are manufactured using materials that contain acetone, toluene, xylene, formaldehyde and benzene which are high VOCs. Other materials that contain VOCs include marker pens, heavy metals that contain lead and mercury (The Environmental Illness Resource 2011).
The list is in-exhaustive. There are many other materials that contain the harmful compounds even though manufacturers have marked them as safe for use. It is thus important for persons using manufactured products to take extra precautions in the use of such products. It is highly likely that most people will be exposed to one of the materials containing VOCs due to how the compounds are spread in almost all products used by man. That means one thing; almost everyone is at risk of being affected.
Effects of VOCs
VOCs have varied acute effects on man and the environment. Products such as marker pens can have very adverse neurological effects on the victim due to the high volume of the substances methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), toluene, and formaldehyde evident in the strong smell when the markers are being used. Toluene, which is a known carcinogen (causes cancer) can also be found in a variety of products used while indoors such as sprays, laundry cleaners and air fresheners (The Environmental Illness Resource 2011).
A study done by A J Venn and others published in 2003 titled “Effects of volatile organic compounds, damp, and other environmental exposures in the home on wheezing illness in children” found out that the risk of wheezing illness was significantly increased only in relation to damp (odds ratio (OR) per increasing category = 1.32 (95% confidence interval (CI), 1.00 to 1.75)), and was unrelated to the other exposures measured. Among cases, formaldehyde and damp were associated with more frequent nocturnal symptoms (OR per increasing quartile and category, respectively, 1.45 (1.06 to 1.98) and 1.97(1.10 to 3.53)), significantly more so in atopic cases, but there was no effect of total volatile organic compounds, nitrogen dioxide, or cotinine.
The research team was seeking to determine the independent effects of VOCs and other common environmental exposures in the home on the risk and severity of persistent wheezing illness in children. They used a methodology where the total volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, damp (on a four category scale of % wood moisture equivalent), and environmental tobacco smoke (from salivary cotinine) were measured objectively in the homes of 193 children with persistent wheezing illness and 223 controls aged 9–11 years in Nottingham, UK. The conclusion was that domestic volatile organic compounds are not a major determinant of risk or severity of childhood wheezing illness, though formaldehyde may increase symptom severity. Indoor damp increases both the risk and severity of childhood wheezing illness (Venn 2003).
Although the conclusion of the above study gives an indication of little effect on the part of VOCs on the children, many scientists have come up with conflicting conclusions in many cases. Health effects of exposure at a lower level of these VOCs are not known. The health advisory levels set by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a maximum dose for a VOC to be considered a contaminant in water is that the compound must produce a known toxic effect in experiments. This means that if the effect is not known, then there will be no advisory and water will be considered safe to drink. (Brookhaven National Laboratory 2008)  Yet it is evident from the study mentioned above that formaldehyde, a VOC, exacerbates conditions caused by other agents although the compound might have been deemed to be in negligible amounts.
As the most industrialized country in the world, the U.S has a vast majority of the population working in factories that use combustion during production. The atmospheric pollutants that are a direct result of combustion are carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). CO when inhaled is known to have a high affinity in combining with the hemoglobin resulting to carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) which adversely affects oxygen circulation in the blood stream. Apart from charcoal, other indoor products that emit CO are paint strippers when the Methyl chloride in them is metabolized. CO poisoning symptoms include fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, cognitive impairment, and tachycardia. Retinal hemorrhage and when over exposed, the patient will die due to lack of oxygen. Exposure to CO for a time of up to 60 minutes can result to up to 13% of COHb in the bloodstream. The effects of COHb in relation to percentage in the blood stream are well captured in the table below (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2010).
Carboxyhemoglobin (COHb)
(% COHb in blood)
Levels and Related Health Effects
(Effects Associated with this COHb Level)
Loss of consciousness; death if exposure continues
Confusion; collapse on exercise
Headache; fatigue; impaired judgment
statistically significant decreased maximal oxygen consumption during strenuous exercise in healthy young men

Statistically significant diminution of visual perception, manual dexterity, ability to learn, or performance in complex sensorimotor tasks (such as driving)

Statistically significant decreased maximal oxygen consumption and exercise time during strenuous exercise in young healthy men
Below 5          
No statistically significant vigilance decrements after exposure to COb

statistically significant decreased exercise capacity (i.e., shortened duration of exercise before onset of pain) in patients with angina pectoris and increased duration of angina attacks
statistically significant decreased (about 3-7%) work time to exhaustion in exercising healthy men
Source: a U.S. EPA (1979); b U.S. EPA (1985)
Researchers all around the globe are busy and suspect that some disabilities, childhood asthma and many other illnesses are a direct result of contamination by VOCs though the long time effect of these compounds is yet to be conclusively established. Persons who spend a lot of time in some particular buildings tend to show symptoms such as itchiness, skin rashes, fatigue and nasal allergies, a conditioned known as the “sick building syndrome”(SBS). These symptoms are most of the time evident in a group that occupies that particular building and is believed to be a result of the VOCs used in the construction. Since SBS was first diagnosed in the 1970, statistics regarding the prevalence of the problem are limited. A World Health Organization (WHO) report from 1984 suggested that up to 30% of new and renovated buildings worldwide may generate excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (1). This high rate may be associated with modern mass produced construction materials that tend to off-gas irritating volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). In a US report, of office workers questioned at random, 24% reported air quality problems in their work place, and 20% believed this harmed their ability to do their job effectively (2) (The Environmental Illness Resource 2011).
Looking at the above mentioned situations, it is evident that everywhere one goes; there is at least a certain amount of exposure to the VOCs. It is important to assume that the level of contamination increases in an individual’s blood stream with each instance of exposure. It will be hard to statistically prove the percentage amount of contamination in every person but the level might be significant. The situation becomes more precarious with the advent of nuclear energy. Exposure to VOCs due to use of nuclear energy not only in the U.S but around the globe especially in the fast developing nations such as India, China and Brazil puts the whole world population of about 6 billion people (100%) at risk.
Managing VOCs and their Effects by Going Green
 “Green Power” is defined by the National Association of Attorney Generals [NAAG] as the use of replenishable or sustainable fuel sources in the generation and transmission of electricity and the disposal of spent fuels. These releases into the environment would not create harmful substances and would pose no significant concern to the ecosystem and to land use (Environmental Planning and Management pg 2).
Many multinational companies are now embracing production methods that would increase safety of the citizen and the environment. The environmental burden is a major corporate responsibility component for any company that stakes its future on the stakeholders who directly rely on a healthy environment for survival. While many nations have put in place laws that ensure regard for the environment when establishing industries and business ventures, the challenge remains affecting these laws especially when dealing with unscrupulous business people who only see the monetary profits. Remanufacturing can also help manage the environment as it reduces the amount of toxic waste disposed. This has been proved by programs undertaken by Kodak and Xerox to recycle their products (Environmental Planning and Management pg 1)
The production of paint in the U.S has taken lead in ensuring that only zero-VOC products find way into the markets. The energy industry has also made strides in ensuring that the disposal of spent fuels does not have adverse effects on the environment and the users while making every effort to use renewable energy. This trend has been reciprocated by the consumer. According to a study by Yanklovich Clancy Schulman, 78% of people are “influenced greatly” to buy products that make environmental claims. The Organic Trading Association notes that products with the word “organic” have 34% sell-through rate compared to conventional products. Furthermore, the rate of growth of natural or organic food has been steady at 18-25% while conventional foods remain flat at 3-4%. The demand for organic products has also affected the clothing industry where the current trend calls for the use of organic cotton(Environmental Planning Management pg4)
Looking at the effects of gasoline combustion, statistics from EPA show that an estimated over 300 metric tons of carbon are emitted by cars and light trucks in the U.S each hear. This amount constitutes more than a third of all other sources of emission. Sulphur oxides and lead result to acidic rains that have acute effects on the environment. Thus the focus on the production of hybrid cars that would limit the burning of fossil fuel should be appreciated. The idea of encouraging people to use mass transit should also be embraced by all (Environmental Planning Management pg11).
It is possible to reduce emissions from cars by over 50% if collective responsibility is embraced. However, to curb the problem of VOCs which has already spilled out of hand, it’s important that populations be made aware of these compounds and the effects they can have on health and the environment. Protecting people from intense exposure and at the same time trying to clean up possible contaminated areas will go a long way in rejuvenating our environment (Brookhaven National Laboratory 2008).
Since it is a problem that affects the whole world, all nations need to have input in these efforts by enforcing laws that regard environmental conservation. But the most developed nations especially the U.S will have to take the lead role.

Works Cited
Environmental Planning and Management. 2003. Web. 9 May 2011.  http://www.worldscibooks.com/etextbook/p460/p460_chap01.pdf
Esposito, Charles. The evolution of low- and zero-VOC paint. 2001. 9 May 2011.  http://www.coatingsworld.com/May041.htm
 “Indoor Air Pollution; An Introduction for Health Professionals.”04 November 2010. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 9 May 2011. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/hpguide.html  
U.S Department of the Interior. Volatile organic Compounds (VOCs). 4 June 2010. U.S
            Geological Survey. 8 May 2011 http://toxics.usgs.gov/definitions/vocs.html
Venn A J, et al. Asthma and the Environment: Effects of volatile organic compounds, damp, and other environmental exposures in the home on wheezing illness in children. November 2003. Web. 9 May 2011. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1746513/pdf/v058p00955.pdf
“Volatile Organic Compounds: Historical Use Leads to Water Concerns”. 2008. Broookhaven National Laboratoy. 9 May 2011.  http://www.bnl.gov/erd/cleanupdate/vol3no2/vocs32.html
“What is Sick Building Syndrome.”19 March 2011. The Environmental Illness Resource. 9 May 2011. http://www.ei-resource.org/illness-information/related-conditions/sick-building-syndrome-%28sbs%29/
“What Type of Materials are High VOCs.” 2011. Conjecture corporation. 9 May 2011 http://www.wisegeek.com/what-types-of-materials-are-high-voc.htm  

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