The construction industry relies on a vast array of materials. These can vary from wood, plastics, metal, and chemicals to put these things together or make them rust-proof and weather-resistant. Contractors can’t build a home or office without these common construction materials.
And while these structures aim to provide comfort and protection, construction materials and everyday household items emit volatile organic compounds or VOCs. But what are these chemicals? How can they be managed, especially in construction projects? Read this article to find out.
What are VOCs?
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are toxic chemicals typically emitted as gases from specific materials. This process, called off-gassing, is most common in newly constructed homes and buildings and is potentially harmful to humans.
According to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), these chemicals often come from synthetic materials used in making a host of products, including paint, petroleum, refrigerants, pharmaceuticals, industrial fluids, and other cleaning agents.
VOCs are present in most building materials such as caulking agents, paint, thinners, varnishes, and the adhesives used in composite wood products, vinyl, and carpet flooring. These potentially harmful chemicals are also present in foam products, air fresheners, personal care, and household cleaning products.
How can they be identified?
Unfortunately, these emissions are invisible and often need to be measured by VOC analyzers such as those from KECO. In some cases, though, your sense of smell can prove to be effective in identifying these pollutants—but not without costs. Depending on the emission levels and exposure, VOCs may trigger asthma and other respiratory issues, eye irritation, cough, and dizziness, among other symptoms.
There are over 10,000 individual chemicals classified as containing or emitting VOCs. And many of these compounds are present in traditional buildings and household materials. For instance, synthetic wood materials may contain formaldehyde. Toluene is another VOC-emitting chemical often used in paint and cleaning products.
How to manage VOCs in construction projects
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a table that sets specific permissible exposure limits (PELs) for industrial workers. Looking at the table, the agency has set the levels at 0.75 ppm (parts per million) for formaldehyde.
When the EPA built its building, it set the Maximum Allowable Air Concentration Standard of <0.20 mg/m³ total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs). Meanwhile, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) set formaldehyde limits of 0.4 ppm for mobile homes.
With that in mind, here are some valuable tips when managing construction projects:
1. Address the source
In reducing the VOCs, choosing construction materials containing low levels of chemicals that emit dangerous compounds is essential. For instance, select solid wood items over composite wood as they have fewer VOCs than their synthetic counterparts. The same holds in picking adhesive materials and sealants. Otherwise, you can skip wood and use other ceramic tiles, slate, and concrete, if possible.
If you can’t find VOC levels for a product, check item information to find out more. In some cases, the product may bear an environment-friendly certification or other forms of acknowledgment for being sustainable.
VOC emissions go through a rapid decline after a month and gradually in the subsequent period, depending on the humidity and temperature. After two years or more, VOC emissions may be stable or at its lowest levels. Choosing materials with zero to low VOC levels helps minimize the emission of hazardous chemicals from the start of the project.
2. Practice proper handling, storage, and disposal
Opting for low VOC construction materials is crucial, but only one part of the equation. Contractors should handle and store unused containers of construction materials properly, including paint, adhesives, and varnishes. Leaving it in an outside shed instead of keeping it indoors where people are present is a good idea. When stored, these products can leak VOCs into the air, affecting air quality indoors and outdoors.
Additionally, project managers should practice proper disposal of empty canisters. Check the city for specific regulations in getting rid of hazardous wastes.
3. Increase ventilation
As VOCs are released as gases, they may quickly dissipate in the air. Increasing ventilation is one of the easiest ways to reduce the impact of these harmful chemicals. Keeping windows and doors open while keeping the property safe is a good idea. And as this process accelerates with high temperatures and humidity, consider using a fan to keep these levels low. Otherwise, you will have to use a dedicated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system to bring outdoor air in. This system will try to filter and dehumidify the air to help improve indoor air quality.
There are distinct guidelines for each VOC-emitting chemical because of the varying levels of its impact on health and the environment. Regardless of these restrictions, it’s in everyone’s interests to minimize the effects of VOCs to safeguard human and environmental health.
While it’s nearly impossible to avoid exposure to these chemicals, your best move as a construction project manager is to tackle the source and choose environmentally sustainable materials. Doing this and improving ventilation and handling storage practices help reduce VOC levels faster.