Tekmar Talk Blog

What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Posted by Betsey Seibel on Wed, Apr 29, 2015 @ 05:22 PM

Volatile_Organic_CompoundsA 57-acre site along the Mohawk River near Schenectady, N.Y., is the future home of a new casino, hotels, apartments and shopping centers. Renderings of the project include elegant glass buildings and plush green lawns. Unfortunately, the site’s history of manufacturing train parts and turbine engines dating back to the 1800s has brought the construction project to a halt. The site is now in the middle of a multi-million dollar cleanup to remove a number of harmful substances, including arsenic, mercury, lead, petroleum byproducts and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In Niskayuna, N.Y., a landfill on GE Global Research’s 525-acre campus contains more than 112 tons of hazardous waste, including VOCs. From the 1940s to the 1970s, metals, ash residue and VOCs were dumped in the landfill. State environmental agencies are recommending monitoring and excavating the site to prevent any further contamination.

For industrial sites such as the two listed above, this type of contamination is not uncommon, but far from welcome. VOCs can provide short- and long-term adverse health effects.  The Environmental Protection Agency defines VOCs as “organic chemical compounds whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor atmospheric conditions of temperature and pressure.” They change easily from vapors or gases, and are released from burning fuels, exhaust and solvents, paints glues and other household products such as aerosol sprays, cleansers and air fresheners. In fact, concentrations of VOCs can be up to 10 times higher indoors than outside.


Impact on Health

VOCs are monitored and regulated by the EPA to “prevent the formation of ozone,” aka smog. They are also monitored because of the impact of human health.


While some organics are known to cause cancer in animals, more common effects are eye, nose and ear irritation; headaches; nausea and damage to liver, kidney and the nervous system.


Why Analyze for VOCs?

Analyzing for VOCs is truly a matter of life or death.


While VOCs are emitted from many of the products we use today, controlling exposure is critical to eliminate their impact on human health. VOCs can be found in ground, air and water, particularly in and around industrial sites and dumping grounds. Organizations responsible for the sites are required to employ numerous methods to clean, cover and remediate the sites to contain the waste and prevent any seepage. Unfortunately, many of the environmental laws and regulations that now protect people and the environment were not passed until the middle of the 20th Century.


One of the events that influenced the regulations occurred in the Love Canal in New York. From 1920 to the late 1950s, Hooker Chemical dumped more than 20,000 tons of waste in barrels in the canal. In 1975-76, high water levels in the canal exposed the barrels, which deposited more than 248 chemicals into the environment, including a known carcinogen, benzene. In 1978, state health officials evacuated 221 families near the canal. That number would grow to 900 families before things would change. The disaster received front-page media coverage and dramatically influenced the testing methods used today to identify the VOCs in air, water and soil.


How to Test for VOCs

Testing for VOCs is traditionally completed using the Purge and Trap technique. In 1974, Teledyne Tekmar revolutionized the way laboratories performed VOC testing with the release of its Purge and Trap Concentrator instruments.


The Purge and Trap technique separates the VOCs from a matrix. The VOCs are collected onto an absorbent trap followed by rapid heating to desorb onto a GC.  The Gas Chromatograph (GC) then separates and identifies the VOCs.


The evolution of the purge and trap technique continues today.


Teledyne Tekmar created the first commercial Purge and Trap concentrator in 1975 and since then Tekmar has been synonymous with innovative, quality products for Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) analysis. Be sure to visit our website for more information on our VOC instrumentation and theories behind Purge and Trap analysis and Headspace analysis.

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Tags: VOC, Volatile Organic Compounds

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