By Marilis Azzopardi

VOCs are one class of pollutants that are usually found in higher concentrations inside our homes than in outside air. In Gibraltar however, this is not necessarily the case due to our proximity to the refinery, industries across the Bay, as well as the ship repair yard, and proximity of ships bunkering near the shore. Generally though, the cocktail of man-made chemicals inside our homes can make the home environment more toxic than relatively clean outside air.

WHAT ARE VOCS?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCS) are organic compounds that are volatile and easily evaporate into the surrounding air. They include a wide variety of chemicals such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde, that are emitted as gases from many solids and liquids, and can be harmful to human health. The harmful effects are determined by the type of VOC, how long you are exposed and in what concentration. Some, such as benzene, are very toxic at even low concentrations whereas other VOCs are toxic only when the exposure is high or continued for a long time.

The cocktail of man-made chemicals inside our homes can be toxic.

The short-term health effects of VOCs can range from eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, to nausea and loss of coordination. Long-term exposures, especially to the more toxic VOCs can lead to serious long-term effects such as kidney, liver and nervous system damage, cancer and endocrine disorders.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND THEM?

VOCs are found in many household products such as paints, varnishes, waxes, as well as cleaning and degreasing products; many contribute to the odorous properties of these compounds.

One study published last year in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that women who work as cleaners or regularly use cleaning sprays experience a greater decline in lung function compared with women who were not cleaners; the extent of lung impairment was compared to smoking just under 20 pack years. One pack year is equivalent to smoking a packet a day for one year, or 40 cigarettes a day for half a year.

Other studies have found that healthcare workers and those frequently exposed to disinfectants e.g. nurses had an increased likelihood of developing respiratory disorders such as asthma and a 22-32% increased risk of COPD.

Personal care products such as deodorants, perfumes and cosmetics such as hairspray and nail polish also contain large quantities of VOCs, including formaldehyde (known to be carcinogenic), which are released into the air when we use them. Some fragrances contain compounds that can react with other compounds in the air and sunlight to form a type of photochemical smog.

Air fresheners also contain a cocktail of organic compounds intended to add aromatic fragrances to the air and mask existing odours. However, they do not freshen the air but instead contribute a variety of around 100 compounds, which include VOCs such as benzene, formaldehyde and xylene and semi-volatile organic compounds such as phthalates, which can have negative effects upon the reproductive and endocrine system. They also contain terpenes such as limonene which can cause allergic reactions or sensitisation symptoms in sensitive individuals or those with respiratory disease. Terpenes are also found in essential oils, which, whether natural or synthetic, also contain a wide range of VOCS, and while they may smell nice, are contributing compounds that can pollute the indoor air space.

Burning incense and scented candles are two practices that generate large quantities of VOCs and fine particulate matter and can aggravate asthmatic symptoms and other health problems.

Furnishings, sofas, foam insulation, chipboard or particle board, and carpets can contain large quantities of formaldehyde; the smell of a new car is due to its presence, and that of other volatile compounds. Individuals with existing lung disease or allergies can often find their symptoms worsen when exposed to formaldehyde and it is a known carcinogen. In an office, VOCs can come from building materials, carpets, copiers, printers and carbonless copy paper.

HOW TO LIMIT VOCS IN YOUR HOME

The combustion of fuel and tobacco smoke also releases many toxic VOCs and creates very large amounts of fine particulate matter, so avoid smoking indoors, and if you must, ventilate the home thoroughly so harmful pollutants don’t accumulate.

When decorating your home, choose products, particularly paints that are labelled low VOC or VOC-free. Gases can leak from closed containers so avoid storing old cans of paint or varnish or keep them in the garage or storeroom – and buy only as much as you will need.

Burning incense and scented candles can aggravate asthmatic symptoms and other health problems.

When choosing furniture, favour solid wood over composite wood products. Most new furniture initially emits high levels of VOCs, but these tend to diminish over time.

Try to limit the use of strong chemicals in the home, and don’t use insecticides which are known to cause endocrine disruption and may increase the risk of some cancers; instead use screens or traps which are effective but don’t pose a health risk to humans.

And finally, what is perhaps the most important advice of all, increase ventilation by opening windows often.