What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

cancer, VOCs

Put simply Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are any organic compounds with a high vapour pressure that evaporate easily into the surrounding air. VOCs are very common in modern life and come from both man-made and natural sources. Understanding them a little better can help you create a healthier and more productive workplace.

Some VOCs are extremely dangerous and can pose serious health risks including cancer. VOCs are also often blamed for so-called “sick building” syndrome, a phenomenon leading to spikes in general heath problems and increased sick days amongst workers. Minimising the risks, however, just takes a little understanding and some extra consideration when choosing things like solvents, cleaners, paints and other products.

Many dangerous VOCs come from man-made sources so it’s no surprise that the biggest risk to health occurs indoors. Indoor sources typically include paint, carpets, cleaning products and solvents, which can contain highly toxic compounds such as formaldehyde and benzene. Both of these cause cancer.

The best way to lower the risk is to choose products with lower toxicity and, if possible, low vapor pressure. For example when choosing a solvent look for something free from benzene that also evaporates slowly. Some products are even labeled as Non-Toxic or Low VOC so look for those.

What’s also important to understand is that some products, such as paints and cleaners can continue to give off VOCs long after they are applied.  Again choosing non-toxic products is the best overall defense, however ensuring adequate ventilation in buildings is also a good strategy in keeping VOC levels down over the long term.

Creating a healthy workplace is mostly about making small changes. Paying attention to VOCs is one simple way you can look after the general health of your colleagues and even help reduce the incidence of certain types of cancer.

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