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  • Dale Allen

Explaining the Risks - VOC Exposure

Updated: May 4, 2020

Due to the way we live and work, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be found everywhere around us, most of the time.

VOC is a classification given to certain chemicals that easily and quickly evaporate and develop into odorous gases and vapours that can significantly increase the accumulation of potentially hazardous substances in the air, especially when released indoors.

Formaldehyde and terpenes are well known examples of VOCs.

A lot of these VOCs, and others like them, are included in a multitude of every day home and cosmetics products, as well as products like paints, coatings, sealants, cleansing agents and can cause a range of adverse health effects.

When using these products indoors the accumulation of VOCs in the air can rise up to a massive 5000 times higher that of an outside measurement. This means the risk of contracting a health problem from the VOCs is significantly higher.

These health problems can range between short-term irritations to long-term, very serious damage:

  • Nausea, dizziness and vomiting,

  • increasingly problematic asthma symptoms,

  • headaches,

  • irritation of the eyes, nose and throat,

  • irritation of the skin, including rashes,

  • liver and/or kidney damage,

  • damage to the central nervous system,

  • cancer.

If you notice that you, or the people around you, start to feel nauseous or some form of recurring irritation every time you and they enter a specific area, mention it to someone and leave the area, taking everyone else with you.

This is a phenomenon called the 'Sick Building Syndrome'

It has been linked to VOCs, and involves many people all showing similar signs of illness that become worse over time, even though those symptoms also ease when everyone leaves the building.

The Sick Building Syndrome is a fairly common occurrence, especially, quite surprisingly, in modern offices, schools and libraries. The open plan nature of these spaces, mixed with computers, photocopiers, printers and poorly planned ventilation systems, can cause an alarmingly high number of VOCs to be captured inside the room.

Preventing sickness due to volatile organic compounds

Depending on where you are and what you're doing the procedures you can take to prevent illness will differ but you can apply the following instructions to most places, including your home.

Opt for alternatives - When it comes to reducing exposure to VOCs to prevent illness one of the most effective ways is to pay attention when shopping for your supplies. Many general products have a low-VOC alternative. Examples of this are cleaning products, or when replacing flooring.

Ensure correct storage protocol - Most chemicals we use, either at home or in the workplace, are hazardous to human health so it's very important that they are stored correctly to reduce the risk of spillages. Ensure all containers are tightly closed with a working seal and are stored inside a chemical storage cabinet. All chemical storage cabinets must be well out of the way of any heating, ventilation or air-conditioning (HVAC) systems and access should be granted to only those who are trained in the use and transport of said chemicals.

Review and maintain safety control measures - Safety should always be an ongoing concern and this is especially important for chemical safety. All control measures put into place should be regularly checked for performance problems and maintained or replaced where needed. Ensuring your ventilation systems is operating at it's highest capacity will ensure low levels of VOCs in the surrounding air.

Review the environment - As well as being a part of law for most work places, regular tests of the environment are vital for preventing exposure or sickness in your employees. In the case of VOCs air quality checks will help you to monitor the abundance of VOCs in the area, as well as several other, very dangerous substances. Frequent paint testing will also determine whether there are any new, unaccounted for VOCs, or other toxic substances, present.

Ensure you have robust and easy to follow policies in place - And make sure you and everyone else is aware of them. These policies will ensure anyone endangered is able to react to the problem and report it in such a way that there is a quick and efficient solution to it.

Training, training, training - I cannot say this enough; training is the single most effective method of reducing risks. Train yourself, your family and your employees and you will all be able to identify risks early and act on them correctly. You will also be able to ensure that everyone around you is safe and knows that the problem is under control, reducing panic and confusion.

Take the new COSHH Risk Assessor Certification™ and ensure you, your family and your employees are safe from volatile organic compounds!

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