What actually causes VOCs?

What do nail varnish, the office printer and microwave popcorn all have in common? 

This isn’t the start of a bad joke, unfortunately, but instead a bad reality. Many of the everyday objects and products dotted around your home and office are exposing you to harmful chemicals known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

VOCS are defined by the European Environment Agency as “Organic chemical compounds that under normal conditions are gaseous or can vaporise and enter the atmosphere”. Essentially, these compounds turn to gas at room temperature and are released into the air you breathe.

There are numerous chemical compounds that fit the description, including both naturally-occurring and human-made compounds. Not all VOCs are necessarily toxic, but many can be damaging to health if exposure occurs over a long period.

Given the average European worker spends close to 25% of their working life in the office, having VOC emitting products present in your workplace isn’t ideal.

Short term exposure - whether by inhaling, digesting, or even touching products containing VOCs - is known to cause symptoms including irritable eyes, nose and throat, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. If that isn’t bad enough, long-term exposure can cause significant damage to your organs and central nervous system, and in some cases cancer. 

Are you being exposed to VOCs?

Almost definitely.

The 10 most common VOCs are acetone, benzene, butanal, carbon disulfide, dichlorobenzene, ethanol, formaldehyde, terpenes, toluene, and xylene. You would expect these to be chemicals handled by workers in hazmat suits in laboratories, waste treatment facilities, and pharmaceutical manufacturing plants.

The reality is VOCs are present everywhere, and are emitted by a range of products that you wouldn’t think twice about having nearby and in some cases putting into your body. 

Acetone is the active ingredient in many nail polish removers.

Benzene is found in many paints and glues.

Butanal is released by burning cigarettes and candles.

Carbon disulfide is present in chlorinated tap water.

Dichlorobenzene is found in many insect repellents.

Ethanol is present in laundry and dishwasher detergents.

Formaldehyde is used in the manufacturing of carpets and insulation.

Terpenes can be found in soap products.

Toluene is often an ingredient in paint.

Xylene is released by stationary vehicles.

How many of these VOC emitters can you spot around the office?

  • Printer
  • Photocopier
  • Cleaning products
  • Marker pens
  • Adhesives
  • Air freshener
  • Varnish
  • Paint
  • Carpet
  • Soap
  • Composite wood
  • Cosmetics

The new car smell? VOCs. The pleasant citrus air freshener in the staff bathroom? VOCs. That delicious odor that hits you when you open a warm bag of microwave popcorn? Also VOCs.

Going VOC-free: How to reduce your exposure

Without going entirely off-grid, coming into contact with VOC-emitting products is unavoidable. Simply walking next to traffic or passing by a smoker will expose you to these chemicals. 

However, you can take steps to reduce exposure and prevent the particularly nasty long-term symptoms.

The good news is that there are often green or VOC-free alternatives to many of the culprit products. Non-acetone nail polish remover, for example, uses less aggressive solvents to dissolve the paint. It may not smell as nice or work as fast, but it won’t damage your health either.

Convincing an office full of work colleagues to ditch their favourite perfume, throw out the office air freshener, or to stop smoking is a big ask. However, improving ventilation, following warning labels and storing VOC emitting products away from workstations shouldn’t be… especially when the consequences of not doing could be severe.