There’s a lot that goes into crafting a healthy workplace. Beyond psychosocial concerns like work culture and communication, environmental factors like indoor air quality are essential for workplace wellness and well-being.
If you're working to optimize your office’s air quality, volatile organic compounds are certainly air pollutants you need to know about. Volatile organic compounds come from various sources and can create many negative health impacts, which we will discuss in this article.
What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?
Before we dive into our discussion of VOCs in the workplace, let’s take this chance to quickly recap what VOCs are.
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a group of hydrocarbons characterized by high vapor pressure. At normal indoor temperatures, VOCs evaporate, entering the air as potentially harmful air pollutants.
VOCs are usually associated with chemical odors, but it is worth noting that some VOCs don’t carry a smell, and some odors don’t have negative health impacts. Some common examples of VOCs you may have heard of before include:
What is TVOC?
For those looking to monitor or test for volatile organic compounds, you’ll likely see the term ‘TVOC’ or ‘total volatile organic compounds’ tossed around. Because there are, quite literally, hundreds of VOCs, there is no practical way to measure all of these substances at once.
Thus, we need a pragmatic way to assess the overall level of VOCs in a space, which is where TVOC comes in. TVOC is a group of VOCs chosen to represent the overall amount of VOCs in a space. The specific VOCs selected to be included in TVOC can vary from study to study, making defining TVOC a tricky business. For an in-depth look into this complex issue, we highly recommend checking out our article: Defining TVOC: Why TVOC Is So Difficult To Explain.
Sources of VOCs in the Office
VOCs can originate from both natural sources and anthropogenic sources. We won’t discuss natural sources of VOCs here, and we will instead focus on indoor sources common to office and workplace environments.
VOCs are common ingredients in many consumer products and building materials, and there are numerous sources of VOCs in an office environment. We’ve listed some of the most common ones below:
- Paints, finishes, sealants, and adhesives
- Furniture and fabrics
- Cleaning products
- Building materials like insulation, carpeting, linoleum, and wood composites
- Office equipment like photocopiers, printers, and fax machines
Given the variety of sources of VOCs out there, you don’t have to be actively using a product containing VOCs for levels to be elevated; in new construction, VOCs in the construction materials like flooring, insulation, and finishes will vaporize and enter the air. Furniture and stored products like cleaning agents can likewise produce VOCs, and human activities like smoking and cooking can release VOCs into the air.
Workplace Health Impacts of VOCs
The health impacts of VOCs will depend on four things: the specific compound, the amount present, exposure duration, and the sensitivity of the individual.
VOCs aren’t uniformly dangerous: some are very harmful to human health, and some are relatively harmless. For example, formaldehyde and benzene, two common VOCs, are far more harmful than bioeffluents (body odors). Exposure to higher amounts of VOCs over more prolonged periods will also increase the risk of adverse health impacts.
Just what are these impacts? Short-term exposure or low-level exposure can cause the following symptoms in building occupants:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
Long-term exposure or high-level exposure to VOCs can cause severe conditions like respiratory diseases and cancers, which could appear years after exposure.
How VOCs Increase Business Costs
What does this mean for the workplace? Well, the health impacts from indoor air pollution, VOCs included, translate to reduced productivity and increased costs.
- Higher concentrations of VOCs are associated with increased building occupant complaints because of sick building syndrome (SBS) symptoms.
- Exposure to VOCs in an office environment significantly reduces performance and productivity. In fact, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found a 13% decrease in cognitive scores across all domains associated with a 500 μg/m³ increase in VOC concentration.
- The health effects created by VOCs can increase absenteeism, which can cost businesses as much per year as operating a building.
Quick Tips for Controlling VOCs in Offices
There are many methods you can use to reduce the presence of VOCs in an office setting, including:
- Monitoring TVOC levels to help locate potential emission sources and meet requirements for building codes and standards like LEED and WELL
- Investing in low-emitting building materials and office supplies
- Sectioning off office equipment that produce VOCs and other air pollutants away from building occupants
- Providing sufficient ventilation to control VOC levels, especially during and after construction or renovation projects
- Properly storing products like cleaning agents, disinfectants, and pesticides in tightly sealed containers
- Using an activated carbon filter to remove VOCs from the air
Improving indoor air quality is one of the most cost-effective decisions you can make to improve productivity and reduce costs in the office. To learn more about how indoor air pollutants, including VOCs, impact cognition, performance, and decision-making, read our article below: