Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapor pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere. A wide range of carbon-based molecules, such as aldehydes, ketones, and other light hydrocarbons are VOCs. The term often is used in a legal or regulatory context and in such cases the precise definition is a matter of law. These definitions can be contradictory and may contain "loopholes"; e.g. exceptions, exemptions, and exclusions. The United States Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) defines a VOC as any organic compound that participates in a photoreaction; others believe this definition is very broad and vague as organics that are not volatile in the sense that they vaporize under normal conditions can be considered volatile by this EPA definition. The term may refer both to well characterized organic compounds and to mixtures of variable composition.
The most common VOC is methane, a greenhouse gas sometimes excluded from analysis of other VOCs using the term non-methane VOCs, or NMVOCs. Other terms used in pollution regulations include NMOG - "non-methane organic gas", and NMHC - "non-methane hydrocarbons".
Major worldwide sources of atmospheric methane include wetlands, ruminants such as cows, energy use, rice agriculture, landfills, and burning biomass such as wood. Methane is the primary component of natural gas.
Common artificial VOCs include paint thinners, dry cleaning solvents, and some constituents of petroleum fuels (eg. gasoline and natural gas). Trees are also an important biological source of VOC; it is known that they emit large amounts of VOCs, especially isoprene and terpenes. Another significant source of VOC emission is crude oil tanking. Both during offloading and loading of crude oil tankers VOC are released to the atmosphere. Lately, there has been an environmental focus on this issue resulting in improved VOC handling on newer tankers, and crude oil loading terminals.
Considered a factor in indoor air quality issues such as sick building syndrome, VOCs "are generated by photocopiers, carpets, and furnishings as they are used or when components oxidize.... One irritant, formaldehyde, present in hundreds of office components, including wood and laminated furniture, shelving, and wall covers. It also evaporates from paints, varnishes, and chemicals used for sealing and finishing walls. Tobacco smoke can contribute high levels of VOCs.
VOCs including halogenide and sulfide are emitted through human respiration, and formaldehyde is emitted at a lower rate from the surface of the human body.
Also many VOCs are found in brownfield sites.
VOCs are an important outdoor air pollutant. In this field they are often divided into the separate categories of methane ((CH4) and non-methane (NMVOCs). Methane is an extremely efficient greenhouse gas which contributes to enhanced global warming. Other hydrocarbon VOCs are also significant greenhouse gases via their role in creating ozone and in prolonging the life of methane in the atmosphere, although the effect varies depending on local air quality. Within the NMVOCs, the aromatic compounds benzene, toluene and xylene are suspected carcinogens and may lead to leukemia through prolonged exposure. 1,3-butadiene is another dangerous compound which is often associated with industrial uses.
Some VOCs also react with nitrogen oxides in the air in the presence of sunlight to form ozone. Although ozone is beneficial in the upper atmosphere because it absorbs UV thus protecting humans, plants, and animals from exposure to dangerous solar radiation, it poses a health threat in the lower atmosphere by causing respiratory problems. In addition high concentrations of low level ozone can damage crops and buildings.
Many VOCs found around the house, such as paint strippers and wood preservatives, contribute to sick building syndrome because of their high vapour pressure. VOC's are often used in paint, carpet backing, plastics, and cosmetics. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found concentrations of VOCs in indoor air to be 2 to 5 times greater than in outdoor air. During certain activities indoor levels of VOCs may reach 1,000 times that of the outside air. Not all organic compounds are volatile; many plastics (polymers) and other large molecules may not have significant vapor pressure at normal temperatures.
Some of the more common terms are:
While all these terms are used, it is not always clear which pollutants are included in each term. The term "VOC" has the advantage of having precise definitions codified by regulators such as the European Parliament and the US EPA.
Worldwide, legal definitions of the term "VOC" are in many respects, more a matter of policy than a matter of science. For example, because the US EPA Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) has characterized a compound as having "negligible photochemical reactivity" it does not necessarily imply that it is, at any particular time, less reactive than those compounds which are not on the list. Since first establishing the list of exempt compounds in 1977, the EPA has added several to the list, and frequently has several petitions undergoing review.
The traditional US standard to determine if a compound is a non-VOC is to compare its reactivity to that of ethane, which was the least reactive compound on the original list. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult comparison to make as it is frequently impossible to duplicate the real-world conditions in a laboratory. To complicate the issue, typical real-world conditions are different from day to day and from place to place. However, there is ongoing study on the use of a compound's reactivity as a better tool for pollution control regulation than the "is or isn't" approach currently in use.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency definition of VOCs is published in the Code of Federal Regulations. It defines VOCs as "any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions," but also includes a list of dozens of exceptions for compounds "determined to have negligible photochemical reactivity.
Under European law, the definition of "VOC" is based on evaporation into the atmosphere, rather than reactivity. For example European Union Directive 2004/42/CE which covers VOC emissions from paints and varnishes defines a VOC as any organic compound having an initial boiling point less than or equal to 250°C measured at a standard atmospheric pressure of 101.3 kPa. Directive 94/63/EC which regulates VOC emissions from storage and distribution of petrol simply defines vapours as any gaseous compound which evaporates from petrol.
The British coatings industry has adopted a VOC labelling scheme for all decorative coatings to inform customers about the levels of organic solvents and other volatile materials present. Coatings manufacturers use standard terminology, text and categories for all products. Information is provided according to five ‘bands,’ and manufacturers may label products with either a British Coatings Federation text box on the back panel, or a graphical globe symbol, the latter subject to licensing from B&Q plc. Both styles of labels contain the same text, and warn that VOCs contribute to atmospheric pollution.
The five bands are:
Minimal - VOC content 0% to 0.29%
Low - VOC content 0.3% to 7.99%
Medium - VOC content 8% to 24.99%
High - VOC content 25% to 50%
Very High - VOC content more than 50%
An example of text box labelling for the Minimal band is shown below, while examples of the graphical globe symbols may be seen on websites of some British coatings companies.
VOCs: smog's indoor legacy. (volatile organic chemicals emit from nylon carpets and other inside materials) (Brief Article)
Dec 19, 1992; Several federal studies have indicated that most exposures to volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), such as benzene and...
IAQ technique used at ground zero. (Industry News).(Air Quality Sciences Inc., DustVOC, analyzes volatile organic chemicals)(Brief Article)
Sep 09, 2002; ATLANTA, GA -- Air QuaLity Sciences Inc. (AQS) recently unveiled a new technique for analyzing the volatile organic chemicals...
Air Quality Sciences, Inc. pilots new DustVOC technique at NYC's Ground Zero. (Newsline).(volatile organic chemicals, New York City)(Brief Article)
Sep 01, 2002; ATLANTA, GA-- Air Quality Sciences, Inc. recently announced a new technique for analyzing the volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)...
NRC faults science behind ozone regs: emissions of one ozone precursor have been underestimated; a "fundamental change" in controls may be needed. (National Research Council; volatile organic chemicals)
Jan 03, 1992; Emissions of one ozone precursor have been underestimated; a "fundamental change" in controls may be needed Twenty years of...