What are VOCs?
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. In other words, VOCs have a very low boiling point. Oftentimes, below the freezing point of water.
Where do VOCs come from?
Some VOCs are naturally occurring, like those released from plants. The smell of freshly mowed grass is actually a type of VOC called green leaf volatiles (GLVs). Other VOCs are emitted by manmade products, such as paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, disinfecting products, cosmetics, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions. Fuels such as gasoline contain VOCs as well.
Isn’t “organic” supposed to be good?
The word “organic” has a natural ecosystem sound to it. However, in the context of modern chemistry, “organic” is a confusing term. It simply means a compound that contains a significant amount of carbon—even though many organic compounds known today have no connection to any substance found in living organisms. In reference to VOCs, organic, simply means containing carbon.
How do VOCs get in my drinking water?
When VOCs are spilled or improperly disposed of, they may soak into the ground. VOCs, like water, follow gravity, and leach into the ground with rain, water or snow melt, possibly reaching municipal water supplies and private wells.
How are VOCs bad for you?
The primary route of exposure to VOCs is through inhalation. However VOCs can be ingested through food and water.
Because there are so many types of VOCs, potential health effects are varied. In addition, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics typically found in the home. According to the EPA, exposure to VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some VOCs are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.
Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some have experienced soon after exposure to certain VOCs. Chronic exposure to VOCs is attributed to a condition known as Sick Building Syndrome.
What are the chances of VOC exposure? How do I know If I have VOCs?
According to the United States Geological Survey’s national assessment of VOCs in groundwater, nearly 1 in 5 aquifers contained one or more of 55 tested VOCs at an assessment level of 0.2 microgram per liter (µg/L).
One or more VOCs were detected in 14 percent of the 2,401 domestic well samples, and in 26 percent of the public well samples. Nearly all of the concentrations were less than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking-water standards.
If your water comes from a public supply, it must comply with EPA drinking-water standards. Public water suppliers are required to publish an annual report. You may contact your water supplier for more information.
Private wells are not regulated by the EPA. In order to find out if your drinking water is contaminated with VOCs, you should get your drinking water tested.
How to reduce VOC Contamination
As most exposure occurs through inhalation, it’s important to remove sources of VOCs in the home, and provide adequate ventilation. According to the EPA, concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. To remove potential sources of VOC exposure in the air, follow this EPA guide.
If your drinking water contains VOCs, removal of the source of contamination is ideal, but not always possible. Construction of a safe, uncontaminated well, or connection to a safe well or public water system are desirable, if possible.
Point-of-entry filtration systems that remove VOCs can be installed in the home to treat contaminated water. Unlike point-of-use filters, point-of-entry systems provide safe water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and laundry.
For drinking water, a gravity-fed water filtration system like the Smyth/Cid Filtration System may be used. These portable water filtration systems remove 98% of VOCs and are ideal for everyday use or for emergency use.
Volatile Organic Compounds. American Water Works Association: http://www.drinktap.org/home/water-information/water-quality/ucmr3/volatile-organic-compounds.aspx
An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). EPA: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html
Indoor Environmental Quality, Chemicals and Odors. CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/indoorenv/ChemicalsOdors.html
VOCs: Volatile Organic Chemicals in Private Drinking Water Wells. Minnesota Department of Health: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/hazardous/topics/vocs.html
Sick Building Syndrome, EPA: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pdfs/sick_building_factsheet.pdf
Volatile Organic Compounds in the Nation’s Ground Water and Drinking-Water Supply Wells: Supporting Information: http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/vocs/national_assessment/