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Hawke's Bay 

Volatile Organic Compounds and their Association with Sick Building Syndrome

John McNally

(c) Environment Centre Hawke's Bay 2015

Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are a wide spectrum of molecules with a long carbon chain that can slowly evaporate and thus can persist at low levels in the air for a prolonged duration. They vary greatly in effect from the benign natural compounds like α-pinene, produced by plants especially pine trees (Asakawa, 2015), to toxic chemicals like benzene, an industrial chemical that was used widely in a range of processes such as decaffeinating coffee (United States of America Patent No. 897840, 1903) or as a solvent in paint (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 1989) prior to its carcinogenic effects being discovered. The origin of these compounds vary, some are used for treating products, such as vinyl acetate in the treatment of leather, while others are the result of degradation of plastics, such as plasticised PVC that can release the volatile phalates as it degrades (Petrovic, 2014).

The large number of products emitting VOC’s has coincided with increasingly tight housing design and has resulted in a built up in houses due to poor air exchange with the outside environment. This is believed to be a contributing factor to sick building syndrome. In these circumstances there a large number of objects that release a persistent low level of VOC’s such as adhesives, chemicals in the upholstery and carpets, residues from the treatment of manufactured wood products, cleaning agents, etc. This effect can be greatly worsened from transient sources such as tobacco smoke, by-products of stove cooking, fireplace and unvented space heater and personal care products like aerosols. (Joshi, 2008)

The problem with many VOC’s is that they are poorly understood, this is a result of the large number of new products being produced that contain organic compounds or oil derivatives. There are an estimated 40-60,000 plastics that could release VOC’s in common usage with over 1,000 being added each year, few of these are ever studied. In the absence of a link to human health or environmental impacts being identified they are rarely studied meaning potential harm can go undetected for years. It is already known that many of these have both short term side effects, such as nausea and headaches, as well as long term consequences that are more severe. While most individually are not present in toxic quantities they rarely exist in isolation and the compound effects are almost never studied (Petrovic, 2014).

Given the commonality of products that release VOC’s removing all the sources of pollutants is impractical. Measures to reduce exposure would be most easily achieved by ensuring ventilation and air flow to remove the pollutants from the indoors to prevent a build-up and minimise exposure. For transient sources such as cleaning products or aerosols opening windows to increase airflow would expedite the removal (Joshi, 2008).

Measures that could be taken to minimise the release of VOC’s focus on minimising the levels present in common household items. Since emissions decrease with time (Duy Xuan Ho, 2011) purchasing second hand furniture will help minimise levels produced, further when renovating or building it is best to avoid synthetic or treated materials, like plastinated PVC, as much as possible as these are major sources of VOC’s (Joshi, 2008), and finally minimising usage of agents high in VOC’s and ensuring they are properly wiped up to ensure residues are not left behind (Lotta Westman, 2000).


Asakawa, Y. N. (2015). Handbook of Essential Oils - Science, Technology, and Applications, Second Edition. CRC Press.

Duy Xuan Ho, K.-H. K.-W. (2011). Emission Rates of Volatile Organic Compounds Released from Newly Produced Household Furniture Products Using a Large-Scale Chamber Testing Method. The Scientific World Journal, 1597–1622.

International Agency for Research on Cancer. (1989). Occupational exposures in paint manufacture and painting. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans / World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, 329.

Johann Friedrich Meyer, J. L. (1903). United States of America Patent No. 897840.

Joshi, S. M. (2008). The sick building syndrome. Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 61-64.

Lotta Westman, G. K. (2000). Methods for detecting residues of cleaning agents during cleaning validation. PDA Journal of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology, 365-372.

Petrovic, E. (2014). Building Materials and Health: A study of perceptions of the healthiness of building and furnishing materials in homes. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington.