What we measure: Airborne chemicals (VOCs) in buildings

Marie Bannister

Marie Bannister

June 18, 2021

Without even realizing it, you have probably inhaled airborne chemicals (VOCs) in your workplace before. Ever thought about what causes that smell in your shiny new business car? Most likely, it is due to the new plastics-off gassing, that is one of the many sources of airborne chemicals.

Airborne chemicals (VOCs) can lead to various health problems and increased costs for your business.

As people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors 1, the majority of this at work or in a school environment,  monitoring VOCs is essential to ensure a safe environment for building occupants.


What are airborne chemicals (VOCs)?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are airborne chemicals given off by cleaning products, air fresheners, furniture, and building materials. In the office, electronic devices and computers can give VOCs an additional boost. 2 VOCs can cause headaches, eye, nose and throat irritations3. On top of it, these symptoms can be translated into costs, as building occupants may suffer from a decrease in cognitive performance while experiencing higher sick leave. 

One study conducted across 37 commercial businesses in California found that VOC concentrations were above the recommended levels in 86% of the buildings.3 This is not surprising, as concentrations of many VOCs are up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors. Of course, certain activities can exacerbate problems, such as paint stripping and other activities can increase, levels of VOCs indoors may be 1,000 times outdoor levels.5



Why is recycled air linked to high VOC concentrations in buildings?

New buildings are highly airtight built to prevent uncontrolled heat loss. As a consequence, VOCs concentration indoors are now higher than they were in the past. In fact, many of the ventilation systems we use today recycle air to conserve energy essentially just move the contaminated air around rather than bringing in new air. 6 This results in high VOC concentrations and poor indoor air quality. As buildings and homes become more energy-efficient and airtight, indoor air may not be as fresh. 

Once you are able to monitor VOC levels in your building, you can easily implement measures to reduce them, such as improving air circulation and opening windows.


What are common sources of VOC exposure in buildings?

  • Building materials, such as wood, metals, bricks, plastic, foamed plastic sheets, ceramics, and cement.
  • Office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper.
  • Graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions. Exposure to methylene dichloride, one of the most common components of adhesives, is extremely harmful.
  • Household products, such as solvents, cleansers, and even wallpaper. Some can contain dangerous volatile organic compounds like acetone, formaldehyde, and butanol.
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What are typical symptoms of exposure to high VOC levels?

Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, difficulty breathing, nausea, fatigue and dizziness. 7

Other effects on health include:

  • Eyes, nose and throat irritation. 8
  • Headaches, loss of coordination and nausea. 9
  • Damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system at high levels over long periods of time. 10

What are the effects of high levels of VOCs for workplaces?

High airborne chemicals in a workplace  can lead to several symptoms depending on the duration of the high levels and which type of VOC they are exposed to. 

  • Asthma symptoms and sick leave:

    Indoor exposure to VOCs has been related to asthma and asthmatic symptoms such as increased bronchial responsiveness and decreased lung function. 11 Sick leave for asthmatics represents up to 30% of the total cases of sick leave linked to respiratory problems.12 This leads to costs to employees, which one study estimated to be 2.5 times higher than those for the control group ($5385 vs. $2121, respectively). 13
    Controlling asthma triggers can then lead to huge savings for commercial buildings while at the same time improving occupants well-being.
  • Headaches and cognitive performance:

    Graph (1)Working with a headache as a result of VOC exposure doesn’t represent the best condition for our ability to focus and perform. Researchers from the University of Toledo, Ball State University and Virginia Tech investigated the link among migraine, headache and indoor air quality. They found that when the participants worked in an environment with unhealthy indoor air, 38% reported experiencing a headache one to three days per month, and 8% reported a headache on a daily basis. 14This has been estimated to cost more than $20 billion a year in direct medical expenses and lost time on the job. 15

    Monitoring air quality appears essential in order to ensure a timely action to reduce VOC concentration and related performance losses.
  • Satisfaction:

    B2C_dashboard_frontVOC related symptoms decrease building occupants and visitors satisfaction in a building. Indeed, one study found that satisfaction with the indoor environment is higher in green buildings. 16 On top of this, the study showed that there is a significant reduction in the risk of occupants having headaches, unusual fatigue, and skin irritations in green buildings, which are all symptoms linked to VOCs. By improving air quality it is then possible to increase satisfaction for employees, students and visitors in any workplace.

Monitoring VOC concentrations is fundamental as they fluctuate over time, and depend upon many factors. Once you are able to monitor VOC levels in your building, you can easily implement measures to reduce them, such as improving air circulation from your HVAC system, upgrading vents, and where appropriate opening windows.


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1 Harvard Annual review of public https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031816-044420

2 https://home.jeita.or.jp/page_file/20140206110359_IlLHdNRXFf.pdf

3 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es202132u


4 https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

5 https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

6 https://oda.hioa.no/nb/item/asset/dspace:23338/14733315.2018.1435026.pdf 

7 https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

8 https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

9 https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

10 https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

11 https://thorax.bmj.com/content/59/9/746

12 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11059951/

13 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11842295/ 

14 https://headaches.org/2012/12/15/poor-indoor-air-quality-leads-to-migraine-and-headache/#:~:text=Office%20workers%20in%20buildings%20with,a%20new%20study%20has%20found.

15 https://www.hcplive.com/view/migraine_work 

16 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ina.12515

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