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VOC and Your Health - 4 Answers

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are always present in the air we breathe, indoors and outdoors.

Knowledge about VOCs is not wide spread. Therefore, we decided to try our best to give you a comprehensive overview on VOCs and tips on how to minimize health effects.

  • What are VOCs?

  • VOCs and health effects [2018]?

  • How can you measure VOCs?

  • What can you do against VOCs?


What are VOCs?

There are multiple definitions of what VOCs are, nearly every country or health organisation has its own definition. This leads to a lot of confusion and doesn't help us much here... Sorry! So we try it this way: generally said, a VOC is an organic chemical which has a low boiling point (high vapor pressure). This low boiling point causes molecules of the VOC to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the VOC and enter the surrounding air (at "normal" room temperature).

The term organic means: VOCs contain carbon (C).

Here are the important definitions for those of us who want to dig deeper:

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and according to ISO 16000-6 are VOCs organic compounds with a boiling point in the range from [50 °C to 100 °C] to [240 °C to 260 °C], corresponding to having saturation vapor pressures at 25 °C greater than 100 kPa.[1] [4]

VOC classification
  • According to ISO 11890-2:2013 are VOCs any organic liquid and/or solid that evaporates spontaneously at the prevailing temperature and pressure of the atmosphere with which it is in contact.[2]

We could easily extend this list with a dozen different definitions what VOCs are.

Here an overview of the categories and sources of VOC:

VOC overview

Another VOC term is Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds (MVOC). MVOC are metabolic products of mold/fungi/bacteria. Further literature on MVOC [3].

[1] WHO, ISO 16000-6 (Indoor air -- Part 6: Determination of volatile organic compounds in indoor and test chamber air by active sampling on Tenax TA sorbent, thermal desorption and gas chromatography using MS or MS-FID).

[2] Paints and varnishes — Determination of volatile organic compound (VOC) content — Part 2: Gas-chromatographic method



VOCs and health effects?

VOCs can have a negative health effect. However, it all depends on:

  • The type of VOC (how toxic it is)

  • On the concentration of the VOC

  • On the exposure time to the VOC

There are many VOCs in the air which do not affect your health. However, there are also toxic VOCs. Short-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs can cause [8]:

  • Headaches

  • Dizziness

  • Light-headedness

  • Drowsiness

  • Nausea

  • Eye and respiratory irritation

  • Allergic reactions

The above short-term exposure effects usually go away after the exposure stops.

Tests in laboratories with animals and long-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs caused [9]:

  • Cancer

  • Affected the liver

  • Affected the kidney

  • Affected the nervous system

In general, it is recommend to minimize exposure to chemicals if possible. However, even in the year of 2018, there are still many things unclear when it comes to VOC and health effects [10]. Which VOC is bad for your health at which concentration and over which time of exposure? How is your health affected by which combination of different VOCs? All these questions cannot be answered today with 100% certainty.

Here a (not conclusive) list on the most dangerous VOCs known today (in alphabetic order) [11]:

  • 1,1,1-Trichloroethane (dizziness)

  • 1,4-Dichlorobenzene (dizzines, liver problems)

  • Benzene (eye/skin irritation, heart problems, cancer)

  • Carbon tetrachloride (liver/heart/kidney and central nervous system damage)

  • Ethylbenzene (dizziness, throat/eye irritation, liver problems)

  • Formaldehyde

  • Styrene (dizziness, throat/eye irritation, harm nervous system)

  • Tetrachloroethylene (liver/kidney and nervous problems, skin irritation)

  • Toluene (lung/liver/kidney problems)

  • Trichloroethylene (liver/kidney/heart problems)

  • Xylenes (lung/liver/kidney problems)






How can you measure VOCs?

The VOC concentration is, besides the exposure time, an important factor when it comes to your health. Here is a table of VOC limits which is often referred to [5]:

VOC exposure limits

Here is a more recent table of VOC limits [6]. We used the unit conversion for TVOC according to [7] (224 ppb per mg/m @ 20 °C, 1 bar):

We from Cellabox are currently running many tests with VOC sensors which measure the Total VOC (TVOC) concentration in ppb. In the picture below, you can see the TVOC concentration in our office. As we do not have an automatic ventilation system, the TVOC goes high in presence of humans and even when nobody is there.

One important thing which you can see is: we should open the windows more often! Every time we opened the window and let in some fresh Swiss alpine air, the TVOC concentration rushes down.

We are currently working hard on a solution to provide you with state-of-the-art Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) sensors, where you can not only measure temperature and humidity, but also the TVOC concentration.

[5] Volatile Organic Compounds, Indoor Air Quality and Health, Lars Mølhave, December 1991



What can you do against VOCs?

Outdoors: VOCs outdoors are usually not a problem for us. Some of them just smell bad. However, VOCs are primary pollutants, which together with UV sunlight, can be converted into ground level ozone (O3).

Indoors: VOCs can be of concern and there are three important points on how you can keep VOC levels at a minimum:

  • Low VOC products: avoid using products which produce a lot of VOCs (e.g. look for paints and cleaning products with low VOC emission).

  • Ventilation: open your windows regularly for about 5 minutes.

  • Plants: there are plants (e.g. Money Plant / Epipremnum Aureum) which remove formaldehyde and other VOCs from your indoor air.


Here a short summary for the quick readers:

  • Good news: there are many VOCs which are not health critical.

  • Bad news: some VOCs have a negative health effect, even below the threshold where you can smell them. There is still much in the dark when it comes to quantify health effect of VOCs on our health.

  • Keep VOCs at low levels:

  • Use low VOC products

  • Ventilation

  • Plants

We are working on a solution that you can measure and observe your indoors VOC levels.

PLEASE leave a COMMENT or SHARE our article.

Thank you!

#indoorairqualitysensor #indoorairquality #VOC #IAQ #airquality #outdoorairquality #TVOC

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