VOCs: Not your friendly neigbourhood chemical compound
Find yourself short of breath lately? Sneezing a lot? Accompanied by a little touch of nausea perhaps? Maybe it is the weather working its magic. Maybe your allergies are acting up. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Or maybe, just maybe, you have been getting exposed to VOCs a lot and finally they have started compromising your body’s systems.
VOCs are Volatile organic compounds that are pretty much present in most homes and offices nowadays. VOCs include phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia compounds and some permutation of benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene is likely present around you as you read this. They enter your homes and offices and indoor spaces hidden in all the cleaning products you’ve been buying to make sure your home is always clean and ready to welcome guests over. But those same cleaning products – thanks to the VOCs they contain – are actually conspiring to rid your home of even the good bacteria you need. And they are making you fall ill. And they are affecting the indoor air quality of your homes. And they are affecting the environment. And they are causing untold damage to our water bodies too.
You can be exposed to VOCs by touching them, as you most likely do while using cleaning products. Not everybody uses gloves while doing the dishes after all. But you can also be exposed to VOCs by breathing them because they get released into the air around you. Most of us spend most of our time indoors, whether at home or work or engaged in a recreational activity, and are constantly exposed to VOCs. And this is not good news for your health.
Short-term exposure to VOCs is known to cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness and sight disorders. Short-term exposure to VOCs is also known to cause memory issues. The long-term effects of VOC exposure include ENT irritation, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination and dizziness. More worryingly, long-term exposure to VOCs can also cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system and in some cases also lead to cancer.
The damage VOCs can cause to the environment is equally fatal and just as persistent. One of the biggest pollutants impacting outdoor air quality across the world is smog. And yes, VOCs contribute to the increase in smog everyday. They react with nitrogen oxides to form ozone, which leads to the formation of fine particulates. This combination along with other gaseous pollutants results in smog, which not only affects visibility but also impacts health on a large scale, affecting respiratory systems and irritating our eyes, noses and throats no end.
The fine particulates formed by VOCs in the air also mix with cloud water, sometimes leading to acid rain. And yes, it is as bad as it sounds. Acid rains affect forests, fresh water sources and soil. They kill marine life and insects. The death of insects also means pollination cycles get affected, leading to reduced plant growth. Acid rains also wash away nutrients from soil, harming trees and animal life that depends on those trees. Acid rains also have multiple adverse effects on human health and wellbeing. And because soil and water is polluted, these pollutants end up entering our food cycle.
VOC-wrought damage on the environment increases the chance of disease for plants and reduces their ability to fight of pests and stress while also hampering their growth. VOCs also cause reduction in farm yields and endanger survival of tree saplings, affecting our food supply and also the earth’s green cover.
Apart from being dispersed from the air, VOCs also reach our water bodies from our drains and toilets. And from pesticide run-off from our farms. And from all the cleaning products disposed in municipal waste without being treated. In water, VOCs lead to excess algal growth, spreading bacteria and stealing light from marine ecosystems while simultaneously depleting oxygen levels, making life difficult for fish and other aquatic animals. VOC-induced algal bloom can also poison drinking water supplies and also make water bodies slimy and odiferous.
You wouldn’t want to willingly store anything at home that has volatile as an adjective to describe it, no? The same discretion needs to be applied when choosing your cleaning products too. After all, what you want is a clean home, not a chemistry lab. Nor do you want to convert the whole world into a chemical warehouse just so you can have the illusion of cleanliness in your homes. To be fair, cleaning products are not the only way VOCs enter your home. They are present in paints and carpets. Even upholstery and mattresses. Even cooking releases VOCs into the atmosphere. And if you have a smoker at home, yes, more VOCs. You may not be able to control all the ways VOCs enter your home. But you can certainly minimise your exposure to them. Starting with your cleaning products.
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