What are VOCs & Why do they matter?
Volatile organic compounds are emitted as gases from certain liquids or solids. They are consistently higher indoors (up to 10x higher according to the EPA) than outdoors. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, many of which have short-term and long-term adverse health effects. Health effects from VOCs include fatigue, headaches, damage to central nervous system, memory impairment, and can prompt an asthma attack for those with allergy sensitivities. Examples of products that emit VOCs include paints, cleaning supplies, building materials, office equipment like printers, and more. VOC's have a direct impact on indoor air quality and taking steps to reduce exposure is important to preserve the health and safety of your building and its occupants. Buildings have become more energy efficient and tightly sealed with a push to greater sustainability, which means it's your job to know what VOC's are and how to provide renewed air in buildings.
Control What You Can
Keep in mind some VOCs can be measured, like Formaldehyde, which means you can possibly identify and remove the source(s). Many building materials, such as insulation, require Formaldehyde as a catalyst. Formaldehyde-free insulation has become more available, and it will clearly be labeled. Look for other better air quality options like low VOC paints. Cleaning chemicals are a big factor in indoor air quality, always opt for low VOC choices when applicable. Knowing the science behind cleaning chemicals also helps to understand how you can control levels of VOCs. Solvents, the chemical that dissolves dirt, are often VOCs. Keep in mind many green cleaning products are more sustainable and include a lower level of VOC content than traditional cleaners.
Know when VOCs are Common and Practice Caution
Specific tasks, such as industrial cleaning and graffiti removal, require higher use of solvents which means higher levels of VOCs. Take necessary precautions when performing these tasks and know which of your products contain high levels of solvents. Wear PPE when dealing with solvents and make sure your facility has proper ventilation. Use carbon filters or other technologies on the market to remove VOCs properly and install or operate effective ventilation systems and air cleaners. HEPA filters are effective in removing particulate matter but not effective at removing VOCs from indoor air. Carbon filters are porous and have a high surface area, which draws VOCs into their pores and traps them. This keeps them out of the air if carbon filters are replaced as they become full.
Other Steps to Reduce Exposure
- Meet or exceed any label precautions
- Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials within a school, provide for maximum ventilation while painting
- Use integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides
- Keep exposure to emissions from products containing methylene chloride to a minimum (paint strippers, adhesive removers, aerosol paint cans).
- Keep exposure to benzene, from environmental tobacco smoke, paints, and stored fuels, to a minimum.
- Buy limited quantities and throw away partially full containers of old or unneeded chemicals carefully
- Retain an air quality company to measure VOCs on a regular basis to determine the impact of the measures you're taking
- Review certification standards to get ideas for suitable products
- Use certification marks, such as LEED, as a signpost for suitable products and keep in mind those with asthma and allergies