Did you know that the air inside your building or workplace could be filled with harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? These compounds are commonly found in industrial and commercial environments like factories, office buildings, and businesses. The gases can come from common items like paints, solvents, building materials, cleaning products, and many other sources and can have serious health impacts like headaches, fatigue, and even damage to organs and the central nervous system. There are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to VOCs. Make sure to properly store products and avoid mixing products, and ensure good air circulation. But what if you want even more protection? Consider investing in air filtration products that effectively remove VOCs and offer superior protection against toxic chemical compounds, while improving indoor air quality
In this blog post, molecular contamination control and air filtration experts describe volatile organic compounds (VOCs), summarize the impacts on the health of Canadians, and share steps to reduce exposure.
WHAT ARE Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?
Health Canada classifies VOCs as organic compounds or chemicals that have a low boiling point that ranges roughly from 50 – 250 degrees Celsius. This relates to the volatility of VOCs, or how easily the organic chemicals vapourize. As VOCs have a high vapour pressure and a low boiling point. The term used in this is volatility because a vast number of molecules are released and enter the air. Source: Health Canada
It’s important to note that not all VOCs emit odours detectable by humans and accurate monitoring devices may be required.
Not all VOCs are harmful; for instance in nature, they can act as attractants for pollinators or even as protection against predators. About 90% of all VOCs in the atmosphere are produced by plants, and they are crucial to the chemical reactions that take place in the atmosphere. For instance, “the VOCs released by a rainforest maintain a clean, chemically balanced atmosphere above it by reacting with airborne toxins,” according to a study published in 2008 in the journal Nature www.nature.com/articles/nature06870
However, some VOCs, particularly anthropogenic (man-made) VOCs, can result in chronic health effects when emitted into the air. Therefore, knowing how to reduce exposure is important for the health of Canadians.
Pesticides, disinfectants, cleansers, photocopy residue, and cosmetics are all products that are commonplace either at home, a factory, a building, or in the workplace. These products all release organic compounds when used, and to some degree, when stored. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases and are composed of a variety of chemicals.
How do VOCs affect indoor air quality?
Because VOCs have a high vapor pressure at room temperature, the organic chemicals quickly evaporate into the surrounding air we breathe. When they enter the lungs or the cardiovascular system, they can cause irritability or even serious organ and tissue damage.
What are some common sources of VOCs?
Concentrations of most VOCs can be many times higher indoors than outdoors.
Some sources are:
- Vapour intrusion from chemical vapours that migrate from contaminated groundwater or from building subsurfaces. The chemicals can be decades old and can seep into building foundations and also enter pipes
- Paints and other solvents
- Aerosol sprays
- Automotive products
- Building furnishings
- Office supplies
- Dry cleaning facilities
- Auto-body shops
- Gas engines
- Chemical spills
WHAT ARE THE symptoms of exposure to VOCs?
As with other air pollutants, health effects can vary based on toxicity and the extent of exposure.
Some key indications of exposure or symptoms of VOC exposure are:
- Allergic skin reaction
- Fatigue, weakness
- Dizziness, nauseous feeling
- Eye, nose, and throat discomfort. Can be itchiness, burning sensation, or redness
- Irritation of skin, skin rashes
- Exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can also reduce employee productivity
How are VOCs harmful to our health?
More long-term health impacts of VOC exposure can include:
- Loss of coordination and persistent nausea
- Damage to organs such as the liver and kidney
- Damage to the central nervous system
- Cancer in animals and suspected of causing cancer in humans
- Respiratory problems, exacerbation of asthma, chronic bronchitis
As many Canadians are oftentimes in the presence of VOCs in their daily lives, potential health impacts must be highlighted. Length of exposure, or type of VOC is an important determinant for serious negative health outcomes.
Studies show that indoor air pollution from VOCs and other components such as particulate matter, smoke, and allergens are associated with the persistence and severity of asthma morbidity. As health effects can be quite serious, reducing exposure is ideal when possible. See more on building air filtration
HOW CAN CANADIANS REDUCE EXPOSURE TO VOCS?
- Use cleaning products or other products which emit low VOCs. Look for label certification. Use natural cleaners when possible instead of harsh chemical cleaners
- Properly ventilate your building or workplace. Use exhaust fans and use high-quality air filters and air cleaners
- Make sure that air from outside is properly filtered
- Use building materials that emit a low amount of VOCs for construction or renovation, including low-VOC sealants, adhesives, insulation, or paints
Canadians can reduce exposure to harmful VOCs by following precautions on labels, proper storage, ensuring good air circulation, and not mixing products. Furthermore, it is important to minimize the use of scented products and to remove unnecessary products. When removing VOC-emitting products, ensure they are disposed of safely.
To increase protection when control methods cannot be assumed, Canadians should increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs. As VOCs are gases, they require a specific filtering technique known as “adsorption”. Therefore, molecular air filtration applications are most suitable.
WHAT AIR FILTRATION PRODUCTS EFFECTIVELY REMOVE VOCS?
Although VOCs encompass millions of gases, there are a variety of filtration solutions that dramatically reduce the most common VOCs found in the environment and drastically improve air quality.
CityPleat air filters are constructed from carbon-embedded pleated media or a combination of molecular media that provides control of both particles and molecular contaminants. CityPleat provides moderate performance and is intended for low-impact indoor air quality (IAQ) and comfort applications. These filters use broad-spectrum carbon to provide efficiency against a wide range of airborne chemicals and are designed with a Rapid Adsorption Dynamics (RAD) mechanism to ensure maximum performance.
The CityCarb range includes the following models: CityCarb E, CityCarb I and CityCarb CH. All these filters operate with a rapid adsorption dynamics (RAD) mechanism that ensures high efficiency against the various chemicals typically present in city-centre buildings. A large media area ensures high efficiency, long life and low pressure drop.
CamCarb Cylinders, CamCarb VG300 and CamCarb VG440 can be filled with various media or blends of media for the removal of moderate to high concentrations of VOCs. In industrial applications with a very high concentration of contaminants, Vertical Deep Bed (VDB) filters in the ProCarb family of products are most suitable.
For more on Camfil molecular media see: How Does Air Filtration for Gaseous Pollution Work? Media Types for Gaseous Contamination
For more targeted protection from VOCs in a smaller space, the City M Air Purifier has a combination HEPA/gas removal filter that allows for healthier employees, lower energy costs, and less cleaning.
There are a variety of factors that determine which clean air solutions work best for the removal of VOCs. Be sure to contact an experienced air filtration consultant to find choices right for your building.
FAQs on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and air filtration:
Do carbon air filters help with removal of VOCs?
Yes, carbon air filters can help with VOCs. There are thousands of volatile organic compounds found in any environment. The most common sources are VOCs released from furniture, paint on walls, markers used in schools and offices, and perfumes. Cleaning products are major sources of VOCs, especially in processes that use heavy cleaning agents. High-quality activated carbon air filters are great at removing those and other VOCs.
Not all air cleaners and air purifiers do a good job of removing VOCs. Consumer-grade air cleaners that promise to reduce indoor volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can actually be a source of VOCs, according to a study led by MIT researchers. The study also found that efficiency varied greatly among different products. Source: news.mit.edu/2021/study-finds-indoor-air-cleaners-fall-short-removing-volatile-organic-compounds-1029
Can HEPA filters remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
HEPA filters have efficiencies of 99.97% at 0.3µ to 99.9995% at MPPS (most penetrating particle size, sometimes as small as 0.12µm) depending on the quality of the filter’s components. HEPA filters are not efficient at trapping the molecules of VOCs which are typically 1,000 times smaller than the particles captured by HEPA filters.
Does vacuuming remove Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?
No, vacuuming regularly cannot remove VOCs from the air. Capturing VOCs requires molecular air filters using the adsorption process to remove them from the airstream. Since vacuums do not typically have this technology installed, this would only spread VOCs around spaces and not remove them.
How long does it take to air out VOCs?
Many paints, cleaners, and aerosols can dissipate in less than a year depending on their compound. Chemicals from building furnishings, factories, and chemical spills can take years to dissipate.
Can air filters remove smoke?
Yes, the best device for removing smoke is a portable air cleaner with both a carbon filter and a HEPA filter. With such a combination, harmful particulate matter and the odour of smoke can be removed.
What are the best air purifiers for VOCs?
A combination HEPA filter that’s been tested and certified to a minimum particle capture efficiency of 99.97% on 0.3-micron particles and a carbon filter (aka molecular filter) to remove gaseous contaminants. This can remove medium concentrations of most external and internal pollutants.
What are the best air filters for odour and gas removal?
For odour and gas removal, the best air filters contain activated carbon.
Does humidity make VOCs worse?
Yes, a study by Environmental Science and Pollution Research found that higher relative humidity, over 58%, revealed an increase in harmful VOC concentrations. It is important to monitor humidity levels in places where VOCs are present. It is also important to have proper air filtration in those areas.
Markowicz P, Larsson L. Influence of relative humidity on VOC concentrations in indoor air. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2015 Apr;22(8):5772-9. doi: 10.1007/s11356-014-3678-x. Epub 2014 Oct 28. PMID: 25345920.
Do dehumidifiers remove VOCs?
No, standard dehumidifiers don’t remove VOCs unless they contain an air filtration system or are coupled with a robust air filtration system. A theoretical study suggested that a process called liquid dehumidification may be partially successful at removing VOCs but it is important to note that 30-60% relative humidity is recommended for healthy indoor air. Poor indoor air quality also can increase odours and spread viruses and infections.
Source: Analytical solution of coupled heat-moisture-VOCs transfer process in a liquid desiccant dehumidifier for indoor VOCs removal – ScienceDirect
What causes a high level of VOC indoors?
According to Health Canada cooking, cigarette smoke, candles and incense, composite wood products (such as some furnishings and flooring materials), building materials (such as paint, glues and varnish), household products (such as air fresheners and cleaning products), infiltration from attached garages (such as from vehicle exhaust), as well as combustion sources (such as improperly vented fireplaces, wood stoves, gas stoves and furnaces) can increase VOC levels indoors.
Can plants remove VOCs?
Not really. Experts state that some plants can remove some VOCs from the air, but it is at a very slow rate and has little impact. “Plants, though they do remove VOCs, remove them at such a slow rate that they can’t compete with the air exchange mechanisms already happening in buildings,” says environmental engineer and indoor air quality expert at Drexel University, Michael Waring, “To reduce VOCs enough to impact air quality would require around 10 plants per square foot.”
About Camfil Canada Clean Air Solutions
For more than half a century, Camfil has been helping people breathe cleaner air. As a leading manufacturer of premium clean air solutions, we provide commercial and industrial systems for air filtration and air pollution control that improve worker and equipment productivity, minimize energy use, and benefit human health and the environment. Read more about Camfil Canada
Massachusetts Institute of Technology www.mit.edu
What is VOC? Facts about volatile organic compounds | Live Science
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