What’s So Bad About VOCs? 2

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015
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VOC's impact on health
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With an increasing number of paint manufacturers lining the shelves with ‘low-VOC’ or ‘no-VOC’ products, we’re now well aware that it’s wise to avoid volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

They’re commonly found in paints, but also in carpeting, furniture, adhesives, cleaning products, and a range of other building and interior materials. If a product has a strong smell, there’s a good chance it contains VOCs.

So why should we avoid VOCs, and just how dangerous are they, anyway?

The VOCs in building and interior products are compounds that evaporate readily into the surrounding environment as a product of off-gassing. As paint dries, for example, it releases VOCs into the air as the solvent evaporates and leaves behind the dried pigment and other components.

VOCs have been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects ranging from the mild – such as respiratory irritation – to the more serious, such as cancer. They’re one of the main culprits behind Sick Building Syndrome, where occupants of a building complain of headaches, fatigue and other symptoms that disappear after leaving the building. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to decreased productivity for employees, and impacts academic performance for school students.

VOCs can fall into two main groups: natural VOCs emitted by plants, decomposing organic matter, and even our own exhalation of carbon dioxide; and man-made or ‘anthropogenic’ VOCs, which are manufactured. While compounds from each category can be relatively harmless or toxic depending on the chemical makeup, synthetic VOCs and their applications typically cause more of a concern.

The health issues caused by VOCs in indoor environments depend on the amount of VOCs present in the air, the length of time they are present, and how frequently people are exposed to them. Symptoms may be very different if a person is exposed to a high level of a particular compound for a brief period of time, compared to someone who is cumulatively exposed to smaller doses for longer. Those more sensitive to chemicals, such as asthmatics, will obviously be affected more strongly under most circumstances.

It’s important to realise that not all VOCs are created equal – some have far more serious health effects than others. Take benzene, for example. As well as being found in sources such as tobacco smoke and stored fuels, it’s used in some paints, adhesives, and furniture wax. Benzene is a known human carcinogen, particularly after long-term exposure, and can cause a range of other nasty health effects including harm to bone marrow, a decrease in red blood cells and a less effective immune system.

Another VOC to watch out for is formaldehyde, which is found in a variety of sources including paints, adhesives, floor finishes and some wood products. Formaldehyde is released slowly and will cause irritation of the eyes and any mucous membranes, particularly in humid environments, which may speed up its rate of release. The effects of temporary exposure to formaldehyde are reversible, but since formaldehyde is another known carcinogen, it’s definitely a compound to avoid.

Not all VOCs are necessarily carcinogenic. Acetone is a solvent used to thin resins and clean tools, and can be found in some paints and varnishes. Despite its strong smell, it’s not considered particularly toxic and is not classed as a carcinogen. It will, however, cause irritation to the eyes upon contact and can trigger respiratory irritation in some cases.

Despite the clear evidence of the hazards of VOCs, they are still legal and widely used in many products. The best way to minimise or avoid them is to look for products marked ‘low-VOC’ or, even better, ‘no-VOC.’ Many paints are marketed with such labels, so avoiding VOCs here may seem easy compared to other interior products such as furniture. Knowing that a manufacturer’s claims regarding VOCs are genuine is another matter. Evidence of third-party certification, such as the Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) ecolabel, shows that a product has been assessed and that any VOCs (if present) are limited to safe levels.

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  1. Angela Petruzzi

    Great article Emma, it's good to highlight some of the issue of VOC which is complicated and not always well understood.
    What's most important though, is there is not much point knowing how much VOC is in a tin of paint or varnish, what we need to know is how it affects indoor air quality.
    With many categories of VOC's defined by their solvents’ boiling point, not smell or toxicity, you say "a strong smell, there’s a good chance it contains VOCs" . Maybe so..but is it always harmful? The opposite can also be true. Just because its odourless doesn't mean no VOCs. It probably means more auxiliary chemicals that are non regulated masking the smell. Many products labelled no or low VOC continue to off gas semi VOCs for days, weeks or much longer. Whilst there is not necessarily a strong smell, those, especially the chemically sensitive, can react strongly.
    As you say, not all VOCs are the same, if they were, we would ban oranges and pine forests. To evaluate the possibility of harm, one must know exactly which ingredients are contained in a product. I fully agree, it's difficult to know if claims are genuine or not. I beg to differ on the last sentence and would love to discus.

    • Emma Berthold

      Hi Angela, thanks for raising some good points! I agree that not all VOCs are harmful, and that their presence cannot necessarily be linked to a product’s smell – however, I think the strong smell of a fresh coat of paint is an example we can all relate to.

      As for evaluating the possibility of harm, that’s where third-party certification such as GECA can take the confusion out of choosing a product. We look at which VOCs are present and at what levels to ensure a lower impact on health and the environment. Our standard criteria are developed in consultation with industry experts and in line with accepted scientific research, and these are available to read online on our website.

      Since the majority of product purchasers don’t necessarily have the time or the background knowledge to conduct exhaustive research into the ingredients used or claims made by the manufacturer, an ecolabel takes a lot of the guesswork away for the buyer.