Volatile organic compounds and indoor air quality29 August 2018
The quality of air within our buildings has a great effect on our bodies, with the temperature, humidity, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds(VOCs) all affecting our health, says Dr Graham Ormondroyd of the BioComposites Centre.
The average European spends approximately 80% of their life indoors and the drive towards more energy-efficient buildings has led to buildings becoming ‘sealed boxes’ in which in-door air pollutants can build up to dangerous levels.
When the pollutants reach critical levels, they can cause acute illness or breathing difficulties, for example, but, more commonly they lead to a chronic illness often termed ‘sick building syndrome’.
The symptoms of sick building syndrome have a serious socio-economic effect, with US$10-20bn a year in the US alone lost due to efficiency and productivity set-backs .
While there is currently limited legislation for total VOCs within homes and office spaces, this will surely become more prevalent as the understanding of the effects of VOCs on human health become better understood.
But where does this leave the timber and, more specifically, the panel industry? Timber naturally releases a series of VOCs acetate. These are the compounds that give timber its smell, which is something we like about timber products. However, at high levels these can be harmful, causing skin and breathing conditions, but this is only a concern for people working with timber, where exposure can be managed. Within the home or office, it would be rare to have such high levels of monoterpenes emitted from timber products. Where the industry has, in the past, fallen behind is with added VOC emitters, and the elephant in the room, formaldehyde (a very Volatile Organic Compound).
The formaldehyde debate has been with the industry for decades but by and large reputable companies have lowered the amount of formaldehyde emitted from their panels to such an extent that formaldehyde detection is as likely from the timber used in the manufacture of the boards as it is from the resins (spruce and pine emits around three ppb formaldehyde).
But are all VOCs bad for you?
High concentrations of VOCs do cause irritation and can lead to health problems, both acute and chronic, but at the right concentrations, VOCs can be beneficial to human health, at least this is what the aromatherapy industry believes.
An essential oil taken from pine trees (and therefore containing the VOCs mentioned earlier) is said to boost metabolism, relieve pain and stress and reduce infections. While we may not subscribe to aromatherapy as a go-to cure for our ailments, we cannot deny that entering a room full of wood products gives a feeling of well-being and a reduction in stress levels.
So what is the outlook for the industry in terms of indoor air quality?
As we become more aware of the effects of indoor air quality on our health, more legislation will come into being and this will have an effect on everything in our built environment.
On the one hand, legislation will push for greener buildings and the use of natural materials. However, on the other hand, the push for healthy buildings will demand lower VOC emissions. There will need to be a trade-off and perhaps an acknowledgement that not all VOC’s are bad and in fact some, in the correct quantities, can be beneficial to our health.