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Unseen pollutants: VOCs and TVOCs explained

Seemingly a nearly impossible term to explain or understand, VOCs are a nearly unavoidable byproduct of our daily lives and are exceedingly common in our indoor environments.

Building materials; building furnishings; and office equipment are sources of VOCs.

What are VOCs?


VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds are a combination of gasses and vapors emitted from toxins and chemicals found in everyday products. United States of America’s Environmental Protection Agency lists the sources of VOCs in buildings as follows:


· Building materials;

· Building furnishings;

· Office equipment, including photocopiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper; as well as

· Graphics and craft materials, which include glues, adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic products.


Other sources of VOCs include:

VOCs can stem from hobby supplies like paints and adhesives.

· Aerosols;

· Cleansers and disinfectants;

· Dry-cleaned clothing;

· Hobby supplies (including paints and adhesives);

· Insect repellents and air fresheners;

· Paints, paint strippers and other solvents;

· Pesticides;

· Stored fuels and automotive products; and

· Wood preservatives.


What are TVOCs?


Due to the wide range of organic chemical compounds that fall under the umbrella of VOCs, the term Total Volatile Organic Compounds or TVOCs is used to simplify reporting when these compounds are present in ambient air.


TVOCs are measured in parts per million (ppm), which serves as an indicator of the concentration of contaminants per billion units of the total mass.


Cornell University's Pesticide Management Education Program explains ppb as follows: “If you divide a pie equally into 10 pieces, then each piece would be a part per ten; for example, one-tenth of the total pie.

“If instead, you cut this pie into a million pieces, then each piece would be very small and would represent a millionth of the total pie or one part per million of the original pie. If you cut each of these million minute pieces into a thousand little pieces, then each of these new pieces would be one part per billion of the original pie.

“To give you an idea of how little this would be, a pinch of salt in ten tons of potato chips is also one part (salt) per billion parts (chips).”


Concerns around exposure to VOCs partially stem from EPA research which shows indoor environments can be much more polluted than outdoor environments.

The difference between VOCs and TVOC:


Short term higher exposure to VOCs would most probably not cause permanent damage to your health, while research supports the fact that lower levels of exposure over a long time period may cause health issues.


VOCs and their health implications:


In recent years studies have found VOCs can be harmful to human health, with exposure being as simple as inhalation and skin contact.


The United States Library of Medicine lists the short-term health risks of exposure to VOCs as irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory problems. It has also been found to aggravate existing raspatory diseases.

Long-term exposure could cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination, dizziness, damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system, and cancer.


The short-term health risks of exposure to VOCs as irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory problems.

The World Health Organization has reported that as many as 3,8 million people die annually due to exposure to household air pollution.


The concerns around exposure to VOCs partially stem from EPA research which shows indoor environments can be much more polluted than outdoor environments. And as humans can spend as much as 90% of their time indoors (Kleipis et al., 2001), concerns around the health risks of VOCs are greater than ever.


Measuring indoor environments:


Before moving on to combatting VOCs, it is vital to know what the concentration is in your indoor environment.


Acceptable levels of VOCs range between 0.3 to 0.5 mg/m3. However, levels of 0.5 mg/m3 and over are marginally and concerning, but concern should be critical as it increases to 1 mg/m3 and more.

The Ergosense Doc measures indoor environments, including TVOCs.

Good environmental health has been found to significantly impact cognitive function scores in employees while contributing to overall productivity and wellness.


With Ergosense’s Doc, you can measure TVOCs alongside a variety of other elements to gather the critical data needed to combat high VOC levels. It also measures sound, humidity, light, temperature, and CO2, allowing you to get a complete picture of your environment’s health.


Read more about workplace health, here. Contact us to optimize your offices, here.

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