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Alphabet Soup, Part 1: VOC

Elizabeth Baldwin

Now and then I'm going to take a break from the longer posts and offer up a short explanation of a common industry acronym. Today, let's look at "VOC."

A VOC is a Volatile Organic Compound.

VOCs are organic chemical compounds that, under normal conditions, have high enough vapor pressures to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere. Simply put, they are chemicals you can breathe. A VOC is not inherently dangerous or evil or artificial. It is just a chemical that has moved from something else into the surrounding air.

The minty smell of toothpaste? That's a VOC (or, actually, several). The odor of gasoline at the pump? Another collection of VOCs. Love that new car smell? VOCs! The most common VOC is methane, for which cows are famous. Common household VOCs occur in paint thinners, dry cleaning solvents, gasoline and, really, anything with an odor. Trees are also an important biological source of several VOCs; it is known that they emit large amounts of VOCs, especially isoprene and terpenes, which help make that fresh "piney" smell people sniff in appreciation.

VOCs vary from those that are absolutely harmless and neutral in their impact on our health to those that are highly beneficial or to those that are actually toxic. Some VOCs, like the minty smell of toothpaste, bother virtually no one. But some are dangerous chemicals and can cause minor or major health problems--some may even be carcinogenic.     

As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors, including the level of exposure and the length of time exposed. Because some do cause problems, VOCs of any type are studied to limit human exposure to the toxic ones. Some, like formaldehyde in building products, are increasingly regulated, while others, like formaldehyde in cigarettes, are inhaled voluntarily (and involuntarily) by millions on a daily basis.

Feel free to suggest future acronyms to be defined in the "Alphabet Soup Series."

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