What are Volatile Organic Compounds?

Eric Tallberg

The legal definition of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) differs from country to country. The U.S. defines volatile organic compounds as organic compounds, basically all hydrocarbons, with low solubility in water, and a propensity for vaporization at relatively low temperatures, including room temperature. Essentially, a volatile organic compound is a chemical or compound that contains such vapor pressure that it does not take much heat to vaporize the particular chemical or compound into a gaseous form.

Some compounds require little heat to vaporize when under pressure.
Some compounds require little heat to vaporize when under pressure.

The most common natural volatile organic compound is methane, an indicator of natural gas formation. A common man-made volatile organic compound is formaldehyde, found in furniture components, paint, and many cleaning solutions and disinfectants. Volatile organic compounds and their heretofore unrestricted use has been a major contributor to such environmental issues as smog and “sick building syndrome.”

Volatile organic compounds contribute to environmental issues like smog.
Volatile organic compounds contribute to environmental issues like smog.

Mainly, the effects of VOCs are seen in respiratory ailments, and disorders of the immune system. Increasingly, however, the vaporous effects of volatile organic compounds are recognized as actually being absorbed through the skin, leading to further complications. VOCs are now considered more than a nuisance, they’re downright deadly.

California, long plagued by smog, was the first U.S. state to recognize the devastating effects of volatile organic compound emissions on health and the environment. Thus, California was the first state to institute volatile organic compound regulations. New York, New Jersey, Arizona, and several other states soon recognized the physical and environmental benefits of regulation of VOCs, and joined California in implementing their own VOC statutes.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in the mid 1990s, finally established definitions and standards for what constitutes dangerous VOC compounds and levels. On 13 September 1999, the first federally mandated regulations for VOC levels, basically EPA volatile organic compounds, went into effect. An EPA volatile organic compound is an organic compound that is determined, by the EPA, to have an especially high photochemical reactivity, or vaporization effect, under normal atmospheric conditions.

What this means is that certain chemicals are especially prone to vaporization under even normal conditions and, therefore, must be kept below certain levels in, for instance, industrial coatings, including ordinary house paints, varnishes, etc. Most states in the U.S. now have VOC regulations much stricter and more comprehensive than federal statutes.

Improvements have had to be made in the loading and unloading procedures at oil pipeline facilities due to the enormous emissions of volatile organic compounds at these sites. Elsewhere, waste sites are being cleaned up, buildings re-coated, even gutted, automobile emissions standards raised, and the chemical processing and manufacturing industry is being rigorously regulated, all in an effort to reduce levels of volatile organic compounds.

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