A number of studies going back more than 20 years have confirmed that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can have a detrimental impact on human health. This is true whether they are found in homes, schools, office buildings or industrial locations.

When chemists use the term volatile, they are usually referring to a liquid that evaporates at room temperature. The word organic means it is a compound that contains carbon. VOCs are gases invisible to the naked eye and often odorless as well. When they are detected using monitoring systems in homes, occupants typically can take steps to minimize or eliminate them far more quickly and easily than might be done in a commercial or industrial setting.

Simply selecting products with fewer VOCs or opening doors and windows can help reduce their concentration and impact on health. However, these steps are typically not possible in a commercial setting. In fact, because many facilities have secured windows that do not open, and some have ventilation systems in which the amount of fresh air circulating has been reduced in order to conserve energy, VOCs can remain airborne for longer periods of time,
with greater health implications.

Health hazards

VOCs can result in many adverse health effects depending on the type, level and length of exposure. Health problems include:

  • Eye, nose and throat irritation
  • Severe headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and
  • vomiting
  • Asthma
  • exacerbation
  • Fatigue
  • Allergic skin reaction
  • Memory impairment and loss of coordination
  • Cancer
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Central nervous system damage

VOCs are found in varying amounts in a large number of products including paint, pesticides, engineered lumber, flooring, wall coverings, fabrics, glues and adhesives, furnishings, office machines, and more. Historically, commercial cleaning products have had relatively high levels of VOCs. However, with the greater emphasis on and adoption of green cleaning strategies, more cleaning products have far fewer VOCs than they had just a few years ago.

There are thousands of different types of VOCs; most are man-made. There are also natural VOCs emitted typically by trees and vegetation. VOCs found in nature usually have minimal health affects because they are released into the atmosphere. It is when they are released into the indoor environment, usually from man-made products, that problems most often arise.

Why so many VOCs

VOCs are in products for many reasons including improving the manufacturing process, the product’s performance, or the way it is packaged and transported. In some wall coatings, VOCs are used as solvents and thinners. In paints, they work with other ingredients so that the ingredients bind together properly, allowing the paint to perform more effectively, better adhere to the painted surface, and be more durable.

In professional cleaning products, VOCs can act as solvents, may help the product perform more effectively, and can help remove soils from surfaces. Common VOCs such as acetaldehyde are used to give some chemicals a pleasant fragrance; in fact, a fragrance many of us are familiar with, pine fragrance, is often the result of including the VOC pinene in
the product.

Before we were fully aware of the detrimental health impacts of VOCs, many manufacturers believed they were improving and enhancing their products with VOCs. Now we know that reducing VOCs is important for health and even for our economy. High levels of VOCs can negatively affect worker performance and often result in absenteeism that can cost businesses billions of dollars annually.

Reducing VOCs

Manufacturers in many industries have made commendable progress reducing VOC emissions in their products. In the professional cleaning industry, this has evolved in the past 10 years for the following reasons:

  • There is greater awareness of the potential harm VOCs can cause.
  • End-customer demand for greener and healthier cleaning products is growing.
  • Governments are mandating that healthier, more environmentally preferable products be used for cleaning.
  • Having products evaluated and certified by independent third-party organizations based on specific guidelines and standards has helped end confusion and assured purchasers that the products they select have lower VOCs and are healthier for the indoor environment.

In most cases, products had to be reformulated — sometimes several times — and then tested by using environmental chamber technology (ECT) and similar evaluations and reporting systems that have been accepted by such organizations as the EPA. These systems mathematically determine exposure concentrations of the products by different applications and in different indoor environments. For the most part the professional cleaning industry is now viewed as a leader in the green movement.

Steps you can take

The first and probably most important step is to just consider VOC emissions when making product selections. For instance, with manufacturing and production picking up, some manufacturers are expanding and upgrading their facilities. Ask vendors for information on the VOC emissions of the products they are using and select low-emitting products, which are now available in scores of product categories.

Along with cleaning products, many products now used to build and operate a facility can be independently analyzed and certified. Look for these products and, even better, make it a policy that only green-certified producst be selected for your facilities.

When cleaning facilities, green-certified products should be used and cleaning workers should be properly trained on how to use these products as well as on effective green cleaning strategies. We have discovered in recent years that simply using a green cleaning product is not enough. Green cleaning involves a systems approach including planning the program, determining which green cleaning products are used, planning how and where they are used, and offering considerable worker training in green cleaning practices.

Also, evaluate current ventilation systems, and when building or remodeling, a well-planned ventilation system should be installed. Studies published by McGraw-Hill have found that in high-occupancy facilities, respiratory illnesses can increase by nearly 400 percent as a result of poor ventilation.  (McGraw Hill Research Foundation in partnership with the Center for Green Schools.)

Finally, always keep in mind that people perform better when they are in healthy facilities. Every product or material selected for your facility can have either a positive or negative impact on those using it. Be aware of this and create spaces that are safe, healthy, and productive.