What are VOCs?
VOCs are volatile organic compounds, an umbrella term for over 10,000 chemical compounds that may be found in your indoor air. Where do these VOCs come from? Cleaning products and personal care products often give off VOCs. Most fragrances from air fresheners and perfumes are VOCs. Although these chemicals are organic, don’t be fooled into thinking they are harmless. Some VOCs such as formaldehyde, benzene, and methylene chloride are classified as carcinogens- cancer-causing substances. The health effects of VOCs depend on the type of VOC, it’s concentration, the duration of exposure, and any chemical sensitivities occupants may have.
When should I have VOC testing done?
Many people test for VOCs following a renovation project. The VOCs found in building materials, furnishings, and finishes can result in elevated concentrations. Spray foam insulation, paint, carpeting, floor finishes, cabinetry, and new furniture can all off-gas a high concentration of VOCs. Unfortunately, you cannot accurately rely on your sense of smell to determine the level of VOCs present.
When a pregnancy comes, parents often paint a bedroom, buy new furniture, install new carpeting, and other activities that add VOCs to the nursery. We often do air quality testing for VOCs in these homes because pregnant women and fetuses are vulnerable to chemicals, especially endocrine disruptors.
How do you test?
We have several methods for measuring volatile organic compounds, depending on the level of detail you desire. In general, the greater the specificity, the greater the cost.
One method for measuring VOCs is using a photoionization detector (PID). This is a screening tool that approximates the total volatile organic compound levels. The advantages of this method include:
- It provides immediate results
- Data can be logged and graphed over time
- Multiple rooms can be quickly and easily compared
- It does not require laboratory analysis
Despite all the advantages, there are some key disadvantages to PIDs:
- They do not identify the individual VOCs (e.g. toluene, acetone, ethanol, etc.)
- They are blind to formaldehyde and methane, both important gases
- Their results can only be considered approximations
For more advanced VOC testing, an air sample must be collected from the space and sent to a laboratory for analysis. Indoor Science may collect the air sample quickly as a grab sample or over time using a whole air sample (“SUMMA Canister”). Or we may collect an air sample using a thermal desorption tube with an air pump over the course of a few hours. In occupational settings, we may even use passive diffusion badges over an eight hour period for exposure monitoring. Lab analysis is typically using a method called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS). This approach is able to identify individual VOCs and their concentrations, however, it is more costly.
We often combine the use of handheld instruments to cover large areas of the space and collect a few laboratory-based samples to identify the specific VOCs present.
Not all chemicals are VOCs, so we may recommend other types of testing to perform together. For example, there is much concern related to semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) that can disrupt the hormone system, especially of fetuses and pregnant women. These chemicals are called endocrine disruptors and include pesticides, flame-retardants, and plasticizers.
How does this compare to $200 monitors sold online?
The photoionization device we use on our project costs over $6,000. The air quality monitors sold online typically use a heated metal oxide semiconductor sensor that costs $10. The cheap sensors provide unreliable data that we consider to be useless. Although these cheap devices give you a number, it cannot be trusted or relied upon. These monitors generally do a good job of measuring temperature and humidity, but utterly fail when trying to measure VOCs.
What if you find a problem?
The few other companies that do VOC testing may be proficient at collecting the samples, but they will likely stumble when it comes to interpreting the results. They will likely give you a list of dozens of VOCs found and leave you to figure out the difference between 1,4 dichlorobenzene and trichloroethylene. We compare your results to a number of exposure guidelines from organizations such as OSHA and EPA. Because of our vast experience with air testing, we can let you know if the results were normal for your type of space, or elevated.
We may be familiar with a specific VOC that is high in your results and be able to link it back to a specific product category. We can work with you to look at ingredient lists and information from safety data sheets to find the exact VOC source.
Not only will we help interpret the results, we’ll also provide you with reasonable solutions to correct the VOC problems. We won’t try to sell you any products like air cleaners, so you can trust the professional advice we provide has your best interest in mind. Although we don’t sell anything, we may recommend products to improve ventilation, such as an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) or a gas-phase air cleaner using activated carbon and other sorbent media. We may even help you find low-VOC cleaning and personal care products to control the source of VOCs, which is typically the best strategy.
What does VOC testing cost?
Call our office now at (312) 920-9393 for a customized quote. We would love the opportunity to help you solve your air quality problem! There are options that cover a wide range of pricing. Perhaps you are interested in a quick screening of the total VOCs without interest in the individual chemicals present. Or maybe you would like to do detailed laboratory tests throughout your space to exactly characterize what is happening to your indoor air quality. Following a short discussion on the phone, we can propose a course of action that meets your budget and provides a level of service that meets your needs.