During the coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, Australians have seemingly been undertaking more DIY and home improvement projects than ever before. This is notable as, some of the major sources of VOCs within the home are home improvement products, such as paints, solvents, glues, fuels, aerosols, composite materials, and cleaning products. Common VOCs within the home include formaldehyde, acetone, xylene, benzene, and methylene chloride.
What is a VOC?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a class of organic chemical compounds that are emitted as vapour from a broad array of building products and household materials. With 19% of VOC emissions globally coming from domestic applications, and exposure levels within the home being notably higher than outdoors, it is important to acknowledge and understand the presence and sources of VOCs, their associated risks, and the steps that can be taken to minimise potential harm.
Sources of VOCS
Household and commercial products, office equipment, building equipment and furnishings may be sources of VOCs. For example, formaldehyde, a colourless gas with an acrid (sharp and bitter) smell, is one of the most common VOCs, and can be found in many building materials such as plywood, particleboard and glues. Formaldehyde can also be found in some drapes and fabrics and in certain types of foam insulation.
Other sources of VOCs include the burning of fuels such as gas, wood and kerosene and tobacco products. VOCs can also come from personal care products such as perfume and hair spray, cleaning agents and air fresheners, paints and coatings, lacquers, varnishes, hobby supplies and office equipment (e.g. copiers and printers). VOCs can also be released from products during use and while in storage.
Associated risks and health effects of VOCs
Different VOCs have different health effects and may range from those that are highly toxic to those with no known health effect. Some studies have further reported that VOCs have damaging consequences for personal health, both short and long term. Exposure may result in immediate symptoms such as ear, nose, and throat irritation, loss of concentration and coordination, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Long-term, continued exposure may result in a heightened risk of cancer, an increase in the symptoms of asthma for asthmatics, damage to the liver and kidneys, and the deterioration of the central nervous system.
As briefly discussed above, indoor air quality contamination can be stronger than outdoor environments. Build-up of VOCs within indoor environments have been associated with the phenomenon, ‘sick building syndrome’ or 'SBS.' Building-related illnesses have been supported by some internationally conducted studies, which have reported VOC levels in households being consistently 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor environments because of poor ventilation. These studies have also indicated VOC levels being in an excess of 1,000 times outdoor background levels during the use of potent solvents indoors. In Australia, a CSIRO report that measured the concentration of a range of pollutants inside homes and outdoors found carbon dioxide, total VOCs, formaldehyde and carbonyls concentrations, were significantly higher inside than outside.
Steps that can be taken to minimise potential harm
With a growing popularity of environmentally-friendly products and sustainability, industry regulators are establishing guidelines and standards to improve VOC content that can be incorporated into the manufacturing process. At the same time, manufacturers are increasingly offering products, such as paints, either labelled as “low VOC” or “VOC-free,” as regulated by the joint Australian/ New Zealand standard, AS/NZS 2311:2017 Guide to the painting of buildings, and other external bodies including Australian Paint Approval Scheme (APAS), Green Building Council of Australia, and Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) Standard.
While these changes sound positive, health authorities still stipulate some practices that should be taken on board by both professionals as well as those of us that have, over the last few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, spent more time within our four walls, and therefore are increasingly more inspired to get started or even finish off those DIY jobs. For example, some authorities detail the importance of appropriate cross ventilation, to avoid the accumulation of contaminants resulting from off-gassing, and effectively, improve indoor air quality.
Correct storage of VOC emission products is also critical. Excess or unnecessary products should not be stored within the home. Instead, they should be disposed of responsibly - your local council or the manufacturer can provide more information on waste management and recycling services. If storage within the home is required, the manufacturer's instructions for storage should be strictly followed, ensuring that containers are sealed adequately, and stored away from heat and UV light.
Composite wood material, such as plywood and particle board, are a potent source of formaldehyde gas, a product used heavily in their manufacturing process. These materials, and products, such as furniture, which contain these materials, should be left to out-gas VOCs before they are bought into the home, in accordance with the recommendations of the manufacturer.
It is critical to be aware and understand the risks associated with VOCs, and the precautions which can be undertaken to minimise harm, especially on account of the increasing frequency of home improvement projects, and DIY activities undertaken during quarantine.
VOC laboratory testing
As a leading laboratory in contamination testing, Envirolab Services is NATA Accredited for a range of VOCs, sulphur compounds, fixed and permanent gases and other compounds.
Our specialisation ranges from VOCs in landfill gas and stack emissions by the USEPA Method 18, VOCs in ambient air and soil vapour collected on thermal desorption tubes under USEPA TO17, and VOCs in ambient air and soil vapour collected in Summa Canisters under USEPA TO15.
However, as there can be circumstances where not all chemicals are VOCs, other types of testing may need to be performed. Based on your circumstances, our team at Envirolab Services is keen to listen and assist you with your sample testing enquiries. Contact us today for more information!
Additional resources and further information
Environment protection authorities (EPA’s), as applicable to the Australian state or territory you’re located in, provide an overview of VOCs, safety procedures and other resources that can be followed to reduce the presence of VOCs indoors. For example NSW EPA, EPA Victoria and EPA WA. From an occupational health and safety perspective, Safe Work Australia provides guidance for employers and workplaces. If outside Australia, please refer to the EPA or appropriate regulatory body operating in your location.
Information relating to low VOC paints as well as guidance and recommended good practice for the design, application and maintenance of decorative paint systems for use by the paint industry in the development of painting specifications can be found at the joint Australian/ New Zealand standard, AS/NZS 2311:2017 Guide to the painting of buildings, available online.
Additional information about VOC paints and star ratings can also be found through the external bodies, Australian Paint Approval Scheme (APAS), Green Building Council of Australia, and Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) Standard.
Make informed decisions with an accredited laboratory
Envirolab is NATA Accredited for an extensive range of analytes using USEPA TO15, USEPA M18, ASTM1945, ASTM1946 and USEPA method 3c methodologies.