Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): What’s All the Fuss About?

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Why are VOCs so important?  Why is everyone talking about them?  It’s because we’ve never before been around them in these concentrations.  We are a species that has spent most of its existence outdoors. Coming indoors over the last few generations, we are now being exposed to materials that don’t exist for long periods of time or at elevated levels outside. VOCs are such materials.

Just to set the record straight, Volatile Organic Compounds do exist in nature.  Many of the ones we are exposed to today, however, are by-products of human processes like manufacturing or the burning of fossil fuels.  But what’s really the big delineator for us these days is in the buildings we are constructing.  VOCs have very short lives when outside because of their exposure to ultraviolet light.  Outside VOCs like formaldehydes have a half-life of about 14 days. That is to say, if no more were created, in 14 days there would be half as much remaining. However, when found indoors, VOCs can last 99 years because there are very low levels of ultraviolet light inside of buildings to reduce them.

So when we talk about how clean things have to be, let us be specific.  This is not a discussion about whether antibacterial soaps are good or bad.  VOCs are not germs or bacteria. VOCs in elevated concentrations are not a part of our history and so we have never developed internal mechanisms for dealing with them. These amazingly complex and magnificent “machines” our parents gifted us and we occupy are also incredibly adaptable but evolution takes time.

In the meantime we need to look at other ways of controlling VOC levels. That is why we are so hung up on talking about emissions inside of buildings and why it is so important that buildings take steps to limit how much people are exposed to.

Are you getting questions about VOCs and indoor air quality? What are the biggest concerns?  What controls, if any, are being taken?

Looking for more information on indoor air quality? Check out:

That New Car Smell Could Be Killing You

Don’t Forget to Clean the Air Inside Your Home

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Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

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