What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

"Volatile Organic Compounds", aka VOCs are organic elements that are very often found in gaseous form in the atmosphere. They are dangerous and contribute to the degradation of air quality while being harmful both to our health and to the environment.

That is why VOCs are subject to increasingly stringent regulations regarding their use and emission. That is also why "VOCs" is labelled increasingly often on products that contain them such as paints, furniture, carpets, etc.

As their name suggests, VOCs are extremely volatile and invisible to the naked eye. What exactly are they made of, and how can you avoid them?

A closer look at Volatile Organic Compounds

"VOC" is the generic name given to all molecules containing a carbon atom and which are characterized by extreme volatility. A molecule is considered volatile when it easily goes from the liquid state to the gaseous state and vice versa.

VOCs are greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Their volatility allows them to spread at varying distance from their source. They have varying effects on our health, with a severity that depends on their composition.

Natural and non-hazardous VOCs

VOCs are naturally present on our planet, without necessarily all being harmful. They are found for example in forests, around volcanoes and are generated through many fermentation processes.

It is estimated that 90% of VOCs are produced organically, therefore naturally, and are more or less biodegradable - albeit slowly - by the action of bacteria, fungi, plants, ozone or UV.

Anthropogenic VOCs, a human-caused catastrophe

Most VOCs nowadays are generated by human activity. Cars, trains, sea and air transport, the world of construction and chemicals, the list is long. The industrial as well as the residential sector are also two major producers of VOCs since they can be found in paints, inks, glues, heating devices, insecticides, solvents, etc. Another major source is farming, especially intensive farming as it is practiced today. In this case, VOCs are emitted by fertilizer, processes of combustion or methanation.

Composition and regulation

A Volatile Organic Compound is composed of:

Solvents, diluents, degreasers, preservatives…, all of these produce VOCs with impact that are hard to evaluate because of their diverse nature.

Starting in 1996, Europe started regulating VOCs: Directive 1996/61 / EC harmonises the authorization and control rules for industrial applications with high pollution potential; while Directive 1999/13 / EC protects individuals and controls VOC levels in all products using organic solvents.

Watch out for VOCs!

It is now very difficult for anyone to escape VOCs emissions. Yet they are directly responsible for the growing number of chronic respiratory diseases, and the rise of allergies in large cities (found in exhaust fumes) and the countryside (found in pesticides). Among the VOCs of greatest concern are formaldehyde, organic solvents, glycol ethers, and hydrocarbons, which are all carcinogenic.

In the decoration and furniture sectors, consumers should make sure to check the VOC levels of a product before buying it. Some furniture can emit VOCs and formaldehyde for several days or even weeks, mainly due to the glues and particle boards used in their manufacture.

An air purifier is currently the only device capable of trapping and destroying VOCs.

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