The ABC’s of VOC’s
When the term “organic” is not healthy
VOC is an acronym for volatile organic compounds. What are volatile organic compounds? Without getting too geeky they include a variety of chemical compounds generally understood to be mildly bad or quite bad for your health. They may have long-term or short-term health effects and allowable exposure levels are an ongoing battle between for-profit industries and environmental and health advocates. Perhaps the most common product affiliated with the term “VOC” is household paint where companies now normally advertise “low” or “no” VOC paint however VOC’s are emitted in many insidious ways such as most household cleaners, nearly anything “scented” artificially such as dryer sheets, air fresheners (the irony eh?), carpet, mattresses, nail polish removers, varnishes, disinfectants (a very curious one because people swap “disinfected” or “sterile” for VOC’s if you think about it), vinyl flooring, dry cleaning, and so on. Both benzenes and formaldehyde are typical common indoor pollutants coming from carpets, glues, cabinets, particle board and so on. New buildings or furnishings are subject to factory chemical off-gassing which is a legitimate “thing”. “Sick building syndrome” (SBS) is a condition when the buildings occupants experience ill health affects when no formal illness or diagnosis is identified. According to the EPA and WHO, up to 30% of new or remodeled buildings likely have unhealthy levels of VOC’s. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose or throat irritations, fatigue, a hoarse voice, flu-like sensations, itchy or dry skin, onset or increased asthma and more. Severe side effects are organ damage, particularly of the liver or kidneys, and cancer. A household specific worth bringing up here is the garage where many people keep vehicles or store paints, oil, gas, thinners, cleaners etc. however if you have a bedroom or otherwise living space where you spend a lot of time located above the garage, you are at risk of those fumes wafting into your space. Your liver cleans your blood at night, which means bedrooms are more concerning to have designed above garages so to the architects reading this, take note….
Maybe it’s because I am an herbalist, but it sure seems like plants appear to be forgiving, helpful, and wise friends to combat most of the problems we humans create. Phytoremediation is the use of plants to mitigate indoor or outdoor pollution. Plant leaves absorb gases through their surface area and the soil microorganisms also help neutralize VOC’s (assuming you are not getting pesticide/herbicide treated plants or potted soil thus adding to your VOC’s). A respectable research study published in PubMed observed that keeping a rubber plant in an office for one week reduced formaldehyde by 50%. NASA has recognized about 50 indoor plants that are excellent for indoor pollution including spider plants, aloe, pothos, peace lilies, rubber plants, snake plants, and many more. For those with a thumb that’s any color other than green, these plants are conveniently really easy to keep alive.
While indoor VOC’s appear somewhat manageable, what gets arguably more serious and less avoidable are those put out by factories, commuters, or the fracking industry. Some of the most common and worst VOC offenders are nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, benzenes, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and formaldehyde. Outdoors, all of these pollutants contribute to ground level ozone toxicity which in turn amplifies smog. There are two very dominant and prominent industries largely responsible for these VOC’s and they have a very interesting relationship….oil/gas and plastic.
Oil and gas and plastic have a serendipitous and symbiotic relationship. It’s hardly a coincidence that single use plastic has exploded in a short amount of time and oil and gas wells are required to produce 99% of what’s required to make plastic. Since 2010, over $180 billion has been invested in new plastic production plants. The investors? Fracking beneficiaries like Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron. ExxonMobil alone recently funded $10 billion for plans to build a plastic production plant in Texas. As the transport industry is headed for EV and less reliance on oil or gas, the future of fracking lies in plastics. As such, fracking needs plastic to thrive for their industry to thrive. Fracking needs you to need plastic. The environmental and health consequences are vast in this relationship.
Never mind what we already know about the harm of plastics and how microplastics are now in nearly all table salt, or piles of plastic the size of Texas are floating in the ocean, or that the US alone uses approximately 500 million straws a day, let’s look at the oil and gas industry that produces this. Johns Hopkins University did a meta-analysis tracking those that lived near fracking sites in Pennsylvania and discovered that those folks doubled their risk of eye, nose and throat complications. They were also twice as likely to have asthma. Benzene alone is 41 times higher sampled within 500 feet of a frack well. Benzene is a VOC that can cause bone marrow issues, anemia, headaches, dizziness, and leukemia just to name a few. Anschutz hospital in Denver, CO, where over 60,000 frack wells are active in the state and over a quarter of them are located near Denver, observed excessive rates of leukemia in young adults and collected data that revealed that those living near fracking sites were 4 times more likely to develop the disease. When Colorado elections included a measure to regulate fracking (not ban) in 2018, oil and gas spent $33 million ($10 million in the month of October alone) in Colorado to suede voters in their favor. It worked. $33 million is not only a tough match to beat from grassroots efforts, but also hints at just how much oil and gas stands to gain or lose depending on that single voting measure.
Climate (no) Change
The same giants that spend billions on plastic production also spend billions on lobbying against climate change. Shell alone spends $49 million a year on lobbying. The money is spent towards luring government decisions and showcasing to the public about their climate-friendly efforts. BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil spend billions in public advertising and social media towards the public on buzz words like “greenhouse gas reductions” and “low carbon footprint” when in reality, statistically only about 3% of their efforts are directed towards lowering carbon footprints.
It seems the more we know the more apt we are to run the risk of “toxin fatigue” where we all are aware that “everything is toxic” so we become numb or allow apathy to set in. This looks like a number of scenarios. We might feel insignificant in the entire complexity of it all. “What’s one straw”, “I’m thirsty so I want this (plastic) water bottle”. We “just want to live” and not feel awful for living. Then there’s the spell of oil and gas guilting us “do you not use phones, planes, buses, or a pen?! Then you need us!”. I’m not sure who can deny this argument, but there are better ways and we can work towards not needing nearly every waking moment or action reliant on the industry.
If you are suspect or concerned about yourself or your children, there are tests you can order. You can order VOC blood work from your doctor or many acupuncture doctors, naturopathic doctors or functional medical practitioners will work with companies that can test this very well to see where your numbers are for both indoor and outdoor VOC’s.
Being proactive in the bigger picture like bringing your own bag to the store, declining straws, ditching synthetic dryer sheets or any “fake scented” things, or swapping zip-locks for reusable ones can all make an impact. Two Plus Two is a company based in Carbondale CO and they make excellent washable reusable snack bags and saran wrap substitutes. I myself can attest to these specifically as I have enjoyed their travel bags for years on backpacking or overseas trips. Merely having awareness of VOC’s that aren’t visible is a huge step. We can’t see or smell many VOC’s which adds to the danger. Remain informed and as they say, follow the money. And maybe buy a houseplant.
Gill, N. (2017, November 27). Study finds an association between proximity to oil and gas development and childhood leukemia. Retrieved from CU Anschutz Today
Hong SH, et al. (Feb. 2017). Study of the removal difference in indoor particulate matter and volatile organic compounds through the application of plants. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from NCBI.
McCarthy, N. (2019, March 25). Oil And Gas Giants Spend Millions Lobbying To Block Climate Change Policies [Infographic]. Retrieved from Forbes.
Rising Use Of Plastics To Drive Oil Demand To 2050. (2018, October 5). Retrieved from Hart Energy.
Taylor, M. (2017, December 26). $180bn investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge. Retrieved from The Guardian.
That anti-straw movement? It’s all based on one 9-year-old’s suspect statistic. (2018, July 18). Retrieved from USA Today.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (1991.) Indoor Facts No. 4 Sick Building Syndrome. [PDF file] Air and Radiation. Retrieved from EPA.
What Is Sick Building Syndrome? Symptoms, Mold, Causes, Tests & Prevention. (2017, August 31). Retrieved from eMedicine Health.