What are volatile organic compounds and where do they come from?
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a class of chemicals that are volatile (they evaporate easily into the air) and are organic in nature (they contain carbon atoms).
- VOCs are present everywhere in the environment, and most people are exposed through many different indoor and outdoor sources including:
- building materials (solvents, paint, glues, carpeting)
- tobacco smoke
- household products (cleaning and personal care products, fragrances)
- gasoline and other fuels
- industrial activities (oil and gas operations, refineries)
- According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors due to off-gassing of building materials and furnishings.
- Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) are some VOCs that may be released from petroleum sources, such as oil and gas operations.
Are VOCS a health concern?
- Generally, most people can be around low levels of VOCs without experiencing health effects.
- Whether or not a person experiences symptoms from VOCs depends on many individual and environmental factors including:
- the type of VOC in the air.
- the amount of the VOC in the air.
- how long the VOC is in the air.
- individual sensitivities to the VOC.
- VOCs can cause different types of short- and long-term health effects. Chemical-specific health effect information is available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxguides/index.asp).
- If you or your family have symptoms you think are caused by VOC exposure, discuss your concerns with your health care provider. You may want to take a copy of this fact sheet with you.
Is there a laboratory test to show if I have VOCs in my body?
- There is a laboratory test that can measure the amount of VOCs in blood. However, this type of test is complex and requires specialized laboratory and collection equipment.
- The CDC has developed standard methods for accurate measurements and interpretation of VOCs in blood.
- Tests performed by commercial labs that do not use these methods may not be accurate.
- Analysts at CDC repeatedly have shown that the results of this test can be significantly affected if blood collection tubes have not been cleaned using specialized methods.
- The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment does not recommend blood testing for VOCs at a laboratory that does not use methods and quality standards recommended by the CDC.
What can blood tests tell me about VOCs?
- A blood test can detect the amount of VOCs in a person’s body at a specific time.
- That just means the person has been around some of these chemicals.
- It does not mean that a person will have health problems from them.
- It does not identify the source of exposure.
- VOCs stay in the blood for a short time, so testing reflects only recent exposures (within hours or days of testing).
- Testing can only tell if a person’s VOC level is lower than, similar to, or higher than the levels of the general population.
- The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment does not recommend blood testing for VOCs since the results cannot determine health effects or source of exposures.
- If you choose to pursue blood testing, discuss these considerations with a clinical toxicologist. Here’s a list.
- For more information on VOCs and biomonitoring, see the NHANES Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/FourthReport.pdf
To report health concerns contact the Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program: www.colorado.gov/oghealth | (303) 389-1687