A volatile organic compound (VOC) is generally defined as an organic compound that evaporates or vaporizes under normal conditions. VOCs are widely used in products such as fuels, feedstocks, and refrigerants. Despite their popularity, VOCs can have negative effects on human health and can cause damage to the environment. For the sake of protection, many countries have established VOC regulations to deal with issues such as emissions and disposal.
These regulations tend to vary greatly from one country to another. Part of the reason for this is because each nation usually has its own regulatory definition. In the United States, many of the VOC regulations are set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). States, however, can set their own definitions and develop their own additional VOC regulations. California has been very proactive in this regard, often setting standards that are used by other states.
One type of VOC regulations are limits on the amount that can be used in various products, such as paints and architectural coatings. Some VOC limits fall under the federal 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 an environmental pollutant that contributes to smog.
Smog caused by VOCs not only jeopardizes human health, but it also endangers plant health. It has been found that ground level ozone can cause substantial agricultural crop losses and damage to forests. The EPA conducted tests and found that architectural coatings were a large contributing factor to this sort of damage, and that it was therefore essential to limit the amount of emissions from this source.
VOC regulations also strive to protect the water supply. The EPA estimates that a substantial amount of water in the US is contaminated with VOCs. Benzene, a component of gasoline, is associated with anemia and leukemia. Brain, liver, and lung damage can result from vinyl chloride, which is used as a solvent. Chloroform, a by-product of water chlorination, can cause liver and kidney damage.
Since the potential danger of drinking VOCs is so great, the EPA has deemed it necessary to control their concentration in water. VOC regulations regarding water do not require that water be absolutely pure. Rather, water is allowed to have a maximum contaminant level. If water has concentration levels below that standard, it is generally considered safe to drink. People are strongly advised to take special care if a water supply contains two VOCs, however, even if they are both below the maximum allowable concentration.