The definition of a volatile organic compound (VOC) varies from country to country. Even within a country, there are often disputes. A general scientific definition of VOC is an organic compound that evaporates or vaporizes under normal conditions. These vapors and gases are emitted from various materials. Since VOCs can have negative effects on the environment, there are emissions standards known as VOC limits that vary worldwide.
In the United States, VOC limits fall under the Clean Air Act because of their potential to cause or contribute to excessive ozone levels which violate the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Ozone is a pollutant that contributes to smog. Agricultural crop destruction and damage to forests are examples often cited as environmental threats posed by VOCs.
Ozone and VOCs are also believed to have adverse health effects. Respiratory symptoms, effects on exercise performance, and pulmonary infections are some of the alleged health threats. VOCs tend to pose different threats to health depending on life circumstances and exposure. A worker who is constantly exposed in an indoor setting is more likely to suffer long term effects than a healthy younger person who spends a few minutes in a setting where VOCs are present, for example.
There are many products that contain VOCs. Most architectural coatings, such as those applied to stationary structures and portable buildings, are one example. Architectural substances are believed to be one of the largest VOC emission sources in some states. This includes products such as paints or adhesives. Wall coverings, photocopying equipment, and exhaust from vehicles are also sources.
By regulating VOCs, the government is attempting to reduce harm to the environment and protect people simultaneously. The issue of VOC limits in federal regulation in the US dates back to 1990, when Congress established a regulatory committee. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides a broad definition of VOC, and instead of providing a list of substances that are included, the agency provides a list of exemptions.
Regional and local governments may have additional and varying VOC limits. California, for example, has developed its own standards. In the US, states have the authority to implement their own compliance testing plans. If the federal government, however, wishes to conduct tests within a state, it is not bound to that state’s testing methods.
There are claims that the inconsistency of standards creates problems for industries whose products are affected. Varying VOC limits and testing methods present complications with regards to sales and marketing. Both consumer and commercial products are regulated. Manufacturers, packagers, importers, and distributors are all affected by VOC limits.