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Volatile organic compounds (VOC)

One would think that the home is safe place to be in; not anymore. As processed building materials, plastics and household chemicals became common, so did their chemical outgassing we had little or no exposure to in the good old times. These days, your every breath pulls into your lungs toxic gasses - volatile organic compounds - emanating from your furniture, carpets, vinyl floor tile, furnace, gas heater/stove, appliances, wallpaper, paint, particle board, plastics, synthetics, rubber, clothing, pillows, cleaners, aerosols, books, newspapers, computers, facial tissue, paper towels, grocery bags, and so on, and on.

The newer they are, the more they outgas. The tighter home, or building (energy efficient type), the higher concentration for given level of outgassing.

These volatile carbohydrons - benzene, tuolene, formaldehyde, styrene, trichloroethylene, and many others - go straight into your bloodstream. After that, it's all in God's hands: how much of them you are exposed to, and for how long, combined with your individual vulnerability, will determine how damaging it will be to your health. And the damage can be serious. VOC are among major causative agents of environmental disease.

While there is a mountain of scientific evidence that these chemicals are detrimental to health, the lack of regulatory action in this area is uninterrupted, and all too familiar. We can't have it all: economic and political prosperity, and healthy living environment at the same time. Every administration is biased to the former, and most of us are just plain ignorant. That keeps the bandwagon - and health of many - rolling downhill.

Just what can volatile carbohydrons do to you? Being fat-soluble petrochemicals, they easily pass through fatty membranes of your lungs, into the bloodstream. Once there, they are attracted to fatty tissues in your body, which inevitably

sets the brain as one of their primary targets.

Thus the first symptoms of being affected by poisonous hydrocarbons are usually fatigue, confusion, headache, dizziness, numbness and depression. They are often preceded or accompanied by dry or watery eyes, runny nose and/or sneezing. How long it will take for these symptoms to develop is highly individual: it can be nearly instantly (which usually means that your system was already overloaded with toxins), or can take years.

Whenever it surfaces, once the symptoms of chemical poisoning start showing, they are there to stay - unless you do something about it.

But volatile organic hydrocarbons can go much farther than ruining your concentration, mood and attitude. They are capable of

interrupting your vital metabolic pathways.

As they accumulate - alone or accompanied by any of a number of other toxins we're exposed to - they can affect literally any body function. Benzene is positively linked to leukemia; styrene to a variety of neurological symptoms, that include numbness, loss of sensation, paralysis, convulsions, toxic encephalopathy (brain fog), mood swings, memory loss, as well as arrhythmia, weakness, fatigue, spastic colon or asthma9; vinyl chloride to immune suppression, genetic damage, cancer...; PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and their derivatives to developmental impairment, cancer...; tuolene to brain fog, mood swings, learning disability, brain and liver damage, heart attack, depression, muscular atrophy...; trichloroethylene to confusion, headache, dizziness, cognitive impairment, muscle cramps (to leukemia as a drinking water contaminant)13... The list goes on and on.

And this is only a partial list of afflictions by a very few out of no-one-knows-how-many VOC we inhale day in and day out, both in home and work environments. As far back as 1973, NASA detected over 300 VOC inside the Skylab III; only 107 were identified. A few years later, EPA studies identified over 350 VOC in a Washington DC home for elderly, including acetone, benzene, carbon tetra chloride, chloroform, dichlorobenzene, ethylacetate, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, trichloroethyene and xylene (Pellizzari et al. 1980, Wallace et al. 1984).

Nowadays, VOC alone easily run in several hundreds, possibly over a thousand.

Also, no one is even trying to figure out what is

the combined effect of hundreds of these and
other poisonous chemicals

that each of us has been contaminated with. As a rule of thumb, the combined toxic effect is not a simple sum, rather exponentially higher.

On top of that, most toxic petrochemicals are not biodegradable, which means that they enter the eco-system, and keep accumulating in the water, soil, plants and animals, including us.

VOC exposure can produce literally any symptom. It is pretty much matter of luck - good or bad - what is your particular exposure, and your individual vulnerability.

Acute symptoms of VOC sensitivity range from eye and upper respiratory tract irritation, confusion, dizziness, chest tightness and headache, to skin eruptions, joint and muscle pain, asthma attack, depression, seizures and even death. VOC can also cause hyperactivity and aggressiveness in children, or irritability in adults.

Long term effects of exposure to elevated VOC are not well studied; one of the very few VOC that were more thoroughly investigated - formaldehyde - has been found to be carcinogenic and mutagenic in animals. It is also a potent sensitizer, which means that it can make you vulnerable (sensitive) to substances that you haven't been sensitive to before your formaldehyde exposure.

___________________Official VOC info__________________

The official EPA information on formaldehyde states: "Formaldehyde, a colorless, pungent-smelling gas, can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma. There is evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions. May cause cancer. May also cause other effects listed under 'organic gases.'". As the main formaldehyde sources it lists pressed wood products (hardwood plywood wall paneling, particleboard, fiberboard, furniture), perm-press fabrics and glues (the carpet glue being notoriously high in outgassing formaldehyde and other VOC), UFFI, combustion sources (natural gas, kerosene) and tobacco smoke.

The EPA page also states that average air concentration of formaldehyde in older homes is "well below 0.1 ppm" (parts per million), while "in homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm".

Health Canada states: Formaldehyde was declared "toxic" under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 as it is "entering the Canadian environment in a quantity or concentration that constitutes or may constitute a danger for the environment on which life depends and a danger in Canada to human life or health" (Environment Canada, Health Canada 2001).

It also specifies the range of formaldehyde levels in Canadian homes as 2.5-88μg per cubic meter, with the average value 30-40μg (0.037-0.049 ppm). It cites a study which found that formaldehyde concentrations above 60μg per cubic meter significantly increased risk for hospitalization due to asthma attack in children aged 6 months to three years (Rumchev et al. 2002). Also, that several occupational studies have shown an increased risk of nasopharyngeal and sinonasal cancer in workers exposed to high air concentrations of formaldehyde.

Concentrations needed to produce cancer in animal studies were above 2400μg/m3, or 60-80 times above the average residential level. But, again, those animals were, unlike us,

exposed to a single chemical.

No study ever tried to determine consequence of being exposed to literally hundreds of toxic chemicals simultaneously, as we are. Seems that those whose job it should be think it is better not to know it, and the broad population haven't figured it out yet just how bad it is.

Despite the estimates that up to 20% of the population is sensitive to formaldehyde alone, there is no hurry to crack down on the sources of VOC contamination. As mentioned, huge interests are at stake, and with it country's very basic economic growth and stability.

__________________The U.F.F.I. lesson_________________

Back in the early 1980's, the U.S. government followed Canadians in banning U.F.F.I. (urea-formaldehyde foam insulation), after numerous complaints of adverse health effects quickly followed its mass installation in new homes  (about 80,000 homes in Canada). Then, watching from the front seat the consequences of doing the right thing in Canada - a landslide of requirements for compensation for the drop in homes' value ($1 billion total), a flood of legal suits against everyone involved - manufacturers, contractors, government - for health-related and other compensations - the U.S. government hastily reversed its U.F.F.I. ban the very next year.

It learned important lesson from that, and won't easily stray into the trap of doing the right thing with any health-related issue of significant proportions.

Since VOC are going to be around for a while, it is prudent to do what you can to minimize your exposure to them.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, you have all the reasons to be. But much can be done for the better.

While we can do little to change global environment, and probably not much with respect to your work place, much can be done to detox yourself, and your home. Also, to make yourself much more resistant to health-destroying VOC and other xenobiotics. It is not an exaggeration. Many of chemicals freely contaminating our bodies are routinely used in laboratories to induce serious neurological damage, crippling arthritis, blazing cancers, and other heavy health damages to experimental animals.

And almost always there are nutrients, or nutrient derived substances - usually part of body's own natural defense - that can either prevent or significantly reduce the damage. For protection from volatile hydrocarbons' toxicity, most important are those supporting body's detox system.

In other words, your body already has great capability of defending your health from this threat. But being under attack from many toxic contaminants at the same time, your body can easily be overwhelmed. You are putting yourself at unnecessary, great risk, if you don't do all that you can to:

} minimize your overall toxic exposure, and

} boost your body's detox system and overall health

One important part of your overall protection from toxins endangering your health is minimizing your exposure to volatile organic compounds.

______________Houseplants to the rescue______________

Considering the extent of VOC presence in a great variety of common material and products, it is nearly impossible to eliminate them from your home environment. However, their level can be significantly reduced by choosing natural, chemically untreated wood for household furniture, flooring or wall paneling, and keeping temperature and humidity at the minimum. By tacking carpet down, instead of gluing it, formaldehyde emission can be reduced by up to 85%, or even more; you can also apply vapor-barrier sealant, opt for natural-fiber, chemically untreated carpet, or for hardwood floor.

For further reduction in VOC levels, you can turn to some household plants. NASA research showed that some plants are very efficient in removing not only carbon monoxide, but also VOC from indoor air. Removal efficiency for CO, benzene and formaldehyde for selected plants is shown on graphs below (Houseplants, indoor air pollutants, and allergic reactions, Wolverton, NASA-NSTL, 1986).

 Leaf area of the spider plant to the left (carbon monoxide) is 0.94 sq. meter. For the middle graph (formaldehyde) leaf area varied between 0.14 and 0.25 sq. meter. It can be used to estimate how many plants are needed to efficiently reduce VOC in a room of given size. As the middle graph indicates, the higher VOC concentration, the faster nominal rate of removal.

The four plants shown were the most efficient; aloe vera was more efficient than philodendron at lower concentration levels: it reduced 5ppm initial concentration of formaldehyde to 0.5ppm in 24 hours, indicating the rate of 3.3 μg per sq. cm of the leaf area vs. 0.6μg for philodendron, the latter starting at 2.3 ppm concentration. Starting with high formaldehyde level of 22 ppm, the rate of removal by philodendron was 4.3 μg, or about seven times higher than at 2.3 ppm.

This indicates that the relative rate of VOC removal by plants somewhat improves as the VOC air concentration diminishes. With the average residential indoor VOC concentration of well below 1ppm, the efficacy of its removal by houseplants can be expected to be significant.