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What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and could they be big polluters in your facility? There are thousands of different VOCs having two things in common – they contain carbon, and they evaporate quickly.

Some are natural and relatively benign – baking bread and cutting onions releases VOCs. Some are natural but harmful, such as some VOCs from molds, aka microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs).

Other VOCs are synthetic and may be hazardous. They can be released by paints, solvents, caulking, adhesives, and, of course, cleaning products, especially those made with petrochemicals.

However, even some “natural” cleaning products emit or produce VOCs, for example, when terpenes in natural essential oil-type products mix with ozone in the air, formaldehyde can be produced. Pine oil type products also release VOCs.

Many VOCs are irritants, carcinogens, and mutagens – and some can give you a headache, or worse.

According to Dr. Christina Peterson, M.D., and neurologist, for those who are headache sufferers (especially those of us with migraines), the chemicals contained in many cleaning products can serve as a headache trigger. These compounds can cause headaches by direct chemical irritation to the trigeminal nerve receptors in the nasal lining. Migraine sufferers are particularly sensitive to any trigeminal stimulation.

Peterson notes that cleaning products may contain trigger chemicals such as fragrance, solvents (alcohols, propylene glycol, glycol ethers, many others) and irritants (like kerosene or formaldehyde).

“These chemicals enter the air as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). To avoid headache, minimize your exposure. If you suspect a particular cleaning product is a headache trigger for you, first be certain you are using it in a well-ventilated area if possible. Heat increases the volatility of VOCs, so using cleaning products in the cooler portions of the day will decrease your exposure.”

How about unscented products?

Will using these reduce VOC exposure? Not necessarily. “Sometimes, a masking fragrance is used in products labeled ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘unscented’ to cover up the scent of a solvent or other VOC in the product,” says Peterson.

Reduce sources and look for certification

According to UL, source control is the best strategy to reduce indoor air pollution and limit chemical exposure. Source control can include selecting products that have been certified for low chemical emissions.

For example, Green Seal’s GS-37 standard specifies that certified products do not contain reproductive toxins, volatile organic compounds, 2-butoxyethanol, alkylphenol ethoxylates, phthalates and ozone-depleting compounds that contribute to the production of photochemical smog, tropospheric ozone, or poor indoor air quality.

“Sometimes, a masking fragrance is used in products labeled ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘unscented’ to cover up the scent of a solvent or other VOC in the product,”

Measuring VOCs?

According to Ian Cull, IAQ consultant, one common and effective way to measure volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is using a photo-ionization detector (PID). These devices are most helpful for measuring overall VOC levels, but not individual ones. Advantages of PIDs include quick results, trackable data, simplified room-by-room comparisons, and no lab facility needed. Disadvantages include generalized rather than specific results, inability to detect some VOCs, and the approximate data provided.

More advanced testing may require taking an air sample and sending it to a lab for gas chromatography or mass spectrometry; which while very precise and specific, is also very costly.

Most importantly, results of these measurements ideally require interpretation by an expert.

Measuring Carbon Dioxide Instead?

Since measuring VOCs and understanding results is complex, in some cases it may be better instead to measure Carbon Dioxide (CO2), the gas we exhale when we breathe, as an indicator of proper or improper ventilation.

For example, in occupied school classrooms, measuring carbon dioxide levels can indicate whether or not the classroom is properly ventilated; high CO2 can be a “surrogate” for high VOCs, while low levels of CO2 may indicate proper ventilation.

However, making sure you are using low-VOC cleaning products and processes is always a sound first step.

Allen P. Rathey


The Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI)



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