oVOC Testing - Volatile Organic Compounds and Toxic Chemicals in Los Angeles

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VOC Sources
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Levels in Homes
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How VOC's Are Sampled


Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome Disorder
A condition sharing some overlap with fibromyalgia, and considerable overlap with CFIDS (Buchwald & Garrity, l994), but which is even less understood, less accepted, and more lacking in treatment options, is that of multiple chemical sensitivity or MCS. This condition is
also referred to as chemical injury, and environmental illness. In MCS, the person through the process of induction, becomes sensitized to particular chemicals or classes of chemicals. Triggering then occurs when the person is re-exposed to these chemicals and negative symptoms are elicited (Ashford & Miller, l991; Miller, l996; Randolph & Moss, l982). Over time
the reactions spread to other classes of related chemicals and the experiencer may thus be caught in a cycle of increasing sensitivity and decreasing personal resources. Classes of
chemicals implicated include solvents, perfumes, paints, pesticides, vehicle exhausts, and others (Bell, Schwartz, Peterson, & Amend, l993). Reactions may be mild, but often are severe or even life-threatening. Included are reactions commonly recognized as allergic such as rhinitis, dermatitis, and anaphylaxis, but also neurological symptoms such as headaches,
confusion, dizziness, irritability, and others. Digestive, endocrine, and neuromuscular effects are also reported.

Chemical poisoning is not new to toxicologists nor to practitioners of occupational medicine. Indeed some persons with MCS have been victims of industrial accidents or other large toxic exposures. Others, however, do not report one known exposure, but develop symptoms after chronic low level exposures, working in a sick building, or having a physical

Two l995 reports document MCS as a worldwide problem and one U.S. study (Meggs et al., l996) found that 33% of a rural representative household population reported having illness symptoms from low level chemical exposures, with 4% reporting becoming ill every single day as a result.

What Causes Chemical Sensitivity?
Research on MCS is in the early stages, but several etiological hypotheses are being discussed in the medical literature. These include neurogenic inflammation, limbic kindling, compromised detoxification pathways, immunological dysregulation, and psychosomatic mechanisms. In limbic kindling, probably the dominant physiological hypothesis, persons are seen as having sensitized to low levels of chemicals through the olfactory nerve (Bascom et al., l997; Bell, l994; Bell, l996; Bell, Miller, & Schwartz, l992; Bell, Schwartz, Baldwin, & Hardin, l996). Because of the ubiquitous nature of chemicals, the olfactory nerve eventually fires at levels of stimulation below the normal threshold for a response. Thus some persons may be responding through the olfactory system to chemicals not previously thought to have physical or behavioral effects at low levels. The unwanted limbic system stimulation could then dysregulate any number of bodily functions because of its involvement in emotion, eating, mood, immune competence, digestion, and other functions.

Detoxification pathways also may be a mechanism for MCS, as these persons often have damage to these pathways (Rogers, l990) and chemicals are capable of disabling enzyme systems. In fact, some pesticides are designed with detox pathway damage as a goal in order for the toxin to remain in the bug's body long enough to do damage. An example of this would be the addition of piperinol butoxide which disables liver enzymes, to pesticides such as rotenone.

A variety of physiological hypotheses are supported by the research to some extent. No one clear pattern of harm has emerged across all patients. However, MCS samples have shown immune damage including altered T-cell ratios (Heuser, Vojdani, & Heuser, l992), nasal pathology including inflammation and damage to the epithelium (Meggs, l997; Meggs & Cleveland, l993), pesticides in the blood (Rea, l992), amino acid imbalances (Galland, l987), autoimmune problems (Levin & Byers, l992), sleep disturbances (Bell et al, l996), and neurological indicators (Dudley, l993; Heuser, et al., l992).

What is MCS Like for Sufferers?
The experience of MCS is one of progressive loss of functioning resulting in stifling limitations in lifestyle. Access diminishes as sensitivities spread to more and more substances, and persons participate in fewer activities and live in more restricted contexts as the condition progresses. The need for vigilance regarding exposures causes a loss of spontaneity, and makes any social interaction or outing cumbersome. Damaged social relations often result for several reasons. First, the person spends considerable time ill from exposures. Second, the need for chemical avoidance significantly reduces activities in contexts where exposures could occur. Third, friends, loved ones, acquaintances, and professionals often display ignorance and disbelief regarding the condition, further alienating the sufferer.

Early stages of MCS are often marked by a frantic search for medical care. Respondents in my ongoing study saw a mean of 8.6 physicians, and only a quarter of these were deemed to have been at all helpful by patients. Participants reported spending exorbitant amounts of money, experiencing considerable iatrogenic harm, and being perceived as not credible by both medical and psychological providers. Access to medical care is limited because of the perfumes, pesticides, and other chemicals present in medical facilities. This means that MCS patients are often unable to find help either for the MCS symptoms or for unrelated health problems should they occur. Respondents in my research reported difficulty finding physicians educated about MCS, safe offices, or someone to take their symptoms seriously. Consequently, many avoided any medical treatment, and 20 persons delayed treatment until their conditions had become medical emergencies. The person coping with MCS may experience considerable emotional upset which may occur as a primary response to exposures (e.g., anxiety following exposure to solvents) (Dager, Holland, Cowley, & Dunner, l987), or as secondary effects of loss (e.g., depression as a result of loss of job, friends, and hobbies). Confusion can result from misattributions, e.g., Multiple Chemical Sensitivity irritability as a result of an exposure may be attributed to a social variable with 5 ensuing damage to personal relationships (Gibson, l993). The future is uncertain with a poorly understood condition that tends to spread, and for which persons often become disabled enough to be completely unable to work. Consequently, anxiety and fear regarding outcome are common elements of the MCS experience.

Why Do More Women than Men Get This Diagnosis?
Although men also have MCS, and particularly Gulf War veterans report these symptoms, there is an apparent preponderence of women among civilians diagnosed with or selfreporting MCS (Cullen, Pace & Redlich, l992; Gibson, Cheavens, & Warren, l996; Heuser et al., l992; Kipen et al., l992; Lax and Henneberger, l995; Ross l992). There are several possible explanations for this. Women are known to have less alcohol dehygrogenase, an enzyme that detoxifies alcohol as well as chemicals (Freeza et al., l990). Women also have a mean smaller body mass than men, and, as allowances for chemicals in water and air are calculated for the "average person," smaller persons may be more vulnerable. In addition, women use more cosmetics and fragrances containing ingredients with known neurotoxic effects. For example, camphor, found in nail polish, perfumes, and other compounds, can damage the central nervous system, eyes, skin, and respiratory system. Women's work conditions in pink collar jobs expose them to high levels of these chemicals in co-workers' personal care products, as well as to high levels of xerox fumes, carbonless paper, pesticides, and chemical cleaners. A Danish study of work-related health complaints in over 4000 workers found gender, job category, photocopying, VDT use, and use of carbonless paper to be significantly associated with a high level of symptoms (Skov & Valbjorn, l987, cited in Ashford et al., l995). Perhaps most salient of all in regard to gender is that dioxin-like chemicals such as pesticides and PCBs are known hormonal disruptors. At the cellular level they may be estrogen agonists or blockers, or testosterone blockers (Colborn, Dumanoski, & Myers, l997). They thus affect women differently than men, and behave differently depending upon the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity particular point in a hormonal cycle at time of exposure. Additionally, these 6 chemicals are potentiative, as a recent study showed estrogen mimickers to be 1000 times as potent when two chemicals were combined (Arnold et al., l996). Thus the hormone disrupting activity of many common chemicals may place women at risk for effects that are both different from and more intense than those experienced by men.



Do ever you get headaches or feel sick at home or at work for no apparent reason? Do you feel fine after you leave an environment that you feel sick in, and then feel sick again when you return to that environment? Do you suffer from chronic fatigue of fibromyalgia? If so, it is entirely possible that the building you feel sick in contains one or more toxic chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOC).

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

EPA's Office of Research and Development's "Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study" (Volumes I through IV, completed in 1985) found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. TEAM studies indicated that while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed. VOC's are to cause a number of adverse reactions in humans, such as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea & vomiting, dizziness, and worsening of asthma symptoms. Long-Term (chronic) symptoms of exposure to high levels of VOCs are an increased risk of cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, and central nervous system damage. Some doctors believe that VOC exposure can cause Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome (MCS) while other doctors disagree. But when you are afflicted with MCS, you don't want differing opinions, you want relief.

VOC Sources
Household products including: paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; dry-cleaned clothing.

Many products we have in our homes release or “off-gas” VOCs. Some examples of sources of VOCs are:

1. Building Materials: Carpets and adhesives, Composite wood products, Paints, Sealing caulks, Solvents, Upholstery fabrics, Varnishes, Vinyl Flooring

2. Home and Personal Care Products: Air fresheners, Air cleaners that produce ozone, Cleaning and disinfecting chemicals, Cosmetics, Moth balls, Aerosol spray products

3. Professional Shop Products: Hair sprays and dyes, Nail polish and removers, Printing supplies, Fuel oil, Gasoline, Vehicle exhaust, Freon

4. Common Every Day Behaviors: Cooking, Dry-cleaning

5. Other: Hobbies, Newspapers, Non-electric space heaters, Smoking, Photocopiers, Stored paints and chemicals, Wood burning stoves
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Health Effects
Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.

The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.

Search EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) (a compilation of electronic reports on specific substances found in the environment and their potential to cause human health effects)

Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome is a disorder that seems to be triggered by exposure to low levels of multiple identifiable or unidentifiable chemical substances commonly present in the environment.1  MCS is more common among women than men. In addition, 40% of people with chronic fatigue syndrome and 16% of people with fibromyalgia have multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome as well.

Some people start having symptoms after a single exposure to high levels of various toxic substances. Symptoms may include a rapid heart rate, chest pain, sweating, shortness of breath, fatigue, flushing, dizziness, nausea, choking, trembling, numbness, coughing, hoarseness, and difficulty concentrating.

Your doctor can perform testing to diagnose allergic disorders, including blood and skin-prick tests. AMI can perform VOC testing on your home or any other indoor environment to determine what chemicals are present.
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Levels in Homes
Studies have found that levels of several organics average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.
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Steps to Reduce Exposure
Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs. Meet or exceed any label precautions. Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials within the school. Formaldehyde, one of the best known VOCs, is one of the few indoor air pollutants that can be readily measured. Identify, and if possible, remove the source. If not possible to remove, reduce exposure by using a sealant on all exposed surfaces of paneling and other furnishings. Use integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides.

  • Use household products according to manufacturer's directions.
  • Make sure you provide plenty of fresh air when using these products.
  • Throw away unused or little-used containers safely; buy in quantities that you will use soon.
  • Keep out of reach of children and pets.
  • Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.

Follow label instructions carefully.
Potentially hazardous products often have warnings aimed at reducing exposure of the user. For example, if a label says to use the product in a well-ventilated area, go outdoors or in areas equipped with an exhaust fan to use it. Otherwise, open up windows to provide the maximum amount of outdoor air possible.

Throw away partially full containers of old or unneeded chemicals safely.
Because gases can leak even from closed containers, this single step could help lower concentrations of organic chemicals in your home. (Be sure that materials you decide to keep are stored not only in a well-ventilated area but are also safely out of reach of children.) Do not simply toss these unwanted products in the garbage can. Find out if your local government or any organization in your community sponsors special days for the collection of toxic household wastes. If such days are available, use them to dispose of the unwanted containers safely. If no such collection days are available, think about organizing one.

Buy limited quantities.
If you use products only occasionally or seasonally, such as paints, paint strippers, and kerosene for space heaters or gasoline for lawn mowers, buy only as much as you will use right away.

Keep exposure to emissions from products containing methylene chloride to a minimum.
Consumer products that contain methylene chloride include paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints. Methylene chloride is known to cause cancer in animals. Also, methylene chloride is converted to carbon monoxide in the body and can cause symptoms associated with exposure to carbon monoxide. Carefully read the labels containing health hazard information and cautions on the proper use of these products. Use products that contain methylene chloride outdoors when possible; use indoors only if the area is well ventilated.

Keep exposure to benzene to a minimum.
Benzene is a known human carcinogen. The main indoor sources of this chemical are environmental tobacco smoke, stored fuels and paint supplies, and automobile emissions in attached garages. Actions that will reduce benzene exposure include eliminating smoking within the home, providing for maximum ventilation during painting, and discarding paint supplies and special fuels that will not be used immediately.

Keep exposure to perchloroethylene emissions from newly dry-cleaned materials to a minimum.
Perchloroethylene is the chemical most widely used in dry cleaning. In laboratory studies, it has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Recent studies indicate that people breathe low levels of this chemical both in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored and as they wear dry-cleaned clothing. Dry cleaners recapture the perchloroethylene during the dry-cleaning process so they can save money by re-using it, and they remove more of the chemical during the pressing and finishing processes. Some dry cleaners, however, do not remove as much perchloroethylene as possible all of the time. Taking steps to minimize your exposure to this chemical is prudent. If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor when you pick them up, do not accept them until they have been properly dried. If goods with a chemical odor are returned to you on subsequent visits, try a different dry cleaner.
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Standards or Guidelines
No standards have been set for VOCs in non industrial settings. OSHA regulates formaldehyde, a specific VOC, as a carcinogen. OSHA has adopted a Permissible Exposure Level (PEL) of .75 ppm, and an action level of 0.5 ppm. HUD has established a level of .4 ppm for mobile homes. Based upon current information, it is advisable to mitigate formaldehyde that is present at levels higher than 0.1 ppm.
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How Are VOC's Sampled?
The best way to sample the widest range of compounds with the greatest of ease is TO-15, a sophisticated canister technology capable of seeing parts per trillion of certain volatile organic compounds. The GC/MS instrument also makes it possible to look at ‘unknown compounds’ and make tentative identifications. It is this versatility that makes TO-15 one of the most powerful tools used for investigation and for any initial evaluation.

The TO-15 analysis as written by the EPA refers to a specific 63 compound list of regulated compounds. The list was developed to support the Clean Air Act. AMI will also perform a non-target compound library search. This will provide a listing of up to 10-20 extra compounds that are not targets. These compounds are referred to tentatively identified compounds (TICs).
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The best health protection measure is to limit your exposure to products and materials that contain VOCs when possible. If you think you may be having health problems caused by VOCs, call AMI to discuss VOC testing in your home or work place.


1. Merck Online Medical Library

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