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Are You Being Exposed to Harmful VOCs at Work?

Most of us are aware that the world’s pollution levels are out of control. As a result, you might take steps to reduce your environmental impact when possible — like walking or biking to work, for example. Others might opt to take better care of their health to mitigate the adverse effects of pollution; most aestheticians agree clients should get a professional facial once per month and these kinds of treatments can remove certain impurities from the surface layer of the skin. In that sense, we can do something good for the earth and for ourselves.

But while we often think of pollutants as being an outdoors-only problem, the reality is that you might be impacted by contaminants when you’re inside, as well. In fact, indoor air quality tends to be significantly worse than the air we’re exposed to when we’re outside. It stands to reason, then, that you might be exposed to some unwelcome elements just about anywhere you spend a lot of your time. And since both parents work full-time jobs in 46% of two-parent households in the U.S. — and countless others spend at least eight hours a day at the office — you might want to question whether your workplace is really as clean as you think it is.

One main source of contamination are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. As defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are chemicals that are emitted as gases from liquids or solids. These chemicals may have short- or long-term health impacts and can be found in thousands of products. Anything from the paint on the walls to the carpeting in a meeting space will likely have these VOCs — and you’ll likely never be the wiser. Many of the products that are ubiquitous in workplaces are known culprits, as well. Not only are printer and copier costs the third-largest office expense, but they’re teaming with VOCs (as are office supplies like glues, permanent markers, and many cleaning agents).

Although VOCs can be found virtually everywhere, that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. On the contrary, the health effects associated with VOC exposure can be severe, in certain cases. Workers in building environments with higher VOC levels may experience skin irritations, rashes, nose and throat irritation, itchy or burning eyes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and even damage to the kidneys, liver, or central nervous system. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a look at any products that might be used in office environments that might contain VOCs, like cleaning products or personal care items, and discontinue their use. It’s also recommended that business owners or office managers have the office’s ventilation and HVAC system assessed to ensure HEPA air filters and being used and that service is being performed regularly.

Keep in mind that there’s real incentive for business owners to reduce VOCs in the workplace. For one thing, doing so can reduce sick days and overall stress levels among employees. One recent study even found that in offices with reduced VOC levels, participant cognitive scores were 101% higher than were found in conventional workspaces — meaning that environments with lower levels of VOCs may help employees’ focus and job performance. If you suspect your workplace might have higher VOC levels, it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider, report your concerns to the personnel in charge of building safety or employee health, and to keep track of any adverse symptoms you experience both in and outside of the office. Since the average person now spends 90% of their time indoors, it’s important to take action sooner rather than later.