Hard to believe, but there are literally thousands of substances in everyday use in our society that give off volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that can be harmful to our health.
The "volatile" part of the name doesn't have anything to do with stock prices, but it's sort of the same idea: just as stock prices can shoot up, gasses take off from their liquid or solid source, evaporating into the air. Think of gasoline or paint thinner. You know how you can smell them when your nose is a foot away or more? You're smelling VOCs. This is also known as "off-gassing." Often you smell the chemical, though sometimes there's no odor.
The "organic" part of the name simply refers to the fact that a substance contains carbon. (There are some big exceptions to this rule about organic stuff having carbon, with carbon dioxide and baking soda bicarbonate of soda rising quickly to the top of the pile, since both contain carbon but are considered "inorganic." This categorization traces to early scientists who figured everything was either from a biological source "organic" or from a metallic or rock source "inorganic." But this is a definition of VOCs, so we're going back to that.)
VOCs are used widely in degreasers, disinfectants, fuels, pesticides, glues, cosmetics, air fresheners, photocopying, pressed-wood furniture, vinyl floors and a seemingly endless array of consumer products. In a typical home you could find all the way from the carpet up to the acoustic acoustic ceiling tiles and in between, in everything from furniture to bathtub caulk. New and remodeled buildings tend to have the highest readings, so authorities recommend you keep such a building particularly well-ventilated for at least the first three months.
Because products containing these chemicals tend to be used indoors, they're a significant contributor to indoor air pollution. They're found indoors at concentrations many times higher than you would find outdoors.
VOCs have famously escaped the confines of the indoors, though, at Superfund sites like New York's Love Canal and Kentucky's Valley Of the Drums. But they also got loose in practically every community in the country, often at dry-cleaning shops and industries using degreasers, before their disposal was strictly regulated.
Even at low levels, these chemicals can cause a number of symptoms. But they sound like symptoms of lots of things, so it can be hard for a doctor to narrow it down to VOCs. Common symptoms include fatigue, headaches, skin and eye irritation, tingling or numbness in the extremities, drowsiness and dizziness.
For more info:
* VOCs in your home: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/voc
*VOCs at your workplace: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/air/office_building-immeubles_bureaux/organic-organiques_e.html
*What causes that "new car smell"? Take a wild guess: pubs.acs.org/cen/whatstuff/stuff/8020stuff.html
*More about VOCs from TheDailyGreen: www.thedailygreen.com/2007/04/18/vocs/866/
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