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What are VOCs & why do we talk about them?

In any workshop or maintenance environment you will be used to the smell of brake cleaner, thinners, or a drum of cleaning solvent. It’s that strong, earthy, chemical smell that emanates from the spray can, tin, or parts washer when it’s squirted, opened, or switched on. Some may quite like the smell, but it will make others wince and shy away from it. What you are sensing are VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds. Let’s have a closer look...

What are VOCs? VOCs are organic compounds that have a high vapour pressure at room temperature – such vapour pressure is a direct result of the low boiling point of these compounds. That means they change quickly from being a liquid to a vapour – it’s what you can smell in the air when you spray an aerosol, open a can, or switch a solvent parts washer or paint gun cleaner on.

This ‘quick change’ is why they are called ‘volatile’. Many VOCs evaporate so quickly that it is impossible for those that work with such compounds not to inhale them, unless using high level PPE, air filtration or high-powered extraction systems.

What's so bad about VOCs then? It’s undeniable that many VOC-containing solvents and chemicals are great cleaners. That’s because the solvent has the effect of ‘dissolving’ many contaminates on contact, breaking it down into smaller particles and carrying it into the solution and away from the surface. However, this great cleaning comes at a huge price. Not only does the cleaning solvent therefore become ‘loaded’ with the smaller particles of ‘soil’, but it will mean that the recirculating solvent will lose its effectiveness over time and need to be changed for new solvent. This generates even more VOCs in the work process.

VOCs are a health hazard Even more shockingly, VOCs have been proven to cause eye, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness and skin problems. And at higher concentrations may also cause irritation of the lungs as well as damage to the liver, kidney or central nervous system. Some VOCs are even suspected of causing cancer. Read the Material Safety Data Sheet of any VOC containing cleaner – you will find these potential hazards listed.

When high quantities of VOCs are present in indoor environments and enclosed workspaces such as workshops, maintenance centres, paint mixing rooms or other tooling areas, they pose the biggest risk. The presence of significant quantities of VOCs can have a marked effect on the ‘users’ working in such environments. And increasingly VOCs are being recognised as contributing to ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ and other detrimental effects. Once they become airborne and escape from an enclosed space, VOCs are widely recognised as contributing to the formation of low-level smog, particularly in urban areas. This is because the VOCs combine with other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (from vehicles, for example) and change in sunlight through a series of chemical reactions to form what are known as secondary pollutants.

One of these secondary pollutants is ozone – that forms at ground level. Whilst ozone is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere and there it is a good thing, it’s a dangerous substance at ground level. It can trigger a variety of health problems in individuals and animals, as well as damaging vegetation and eco-systems.

Is there an alternative to using VOC-cleaners? When it comes to protecting both the environment and workers, an employer either needs to invest in the precautionary measures outlined above, or switch to products that contain low or no VOCs. That’s where Bio-Circle come in.

Our products have been specially formulated to eliminate and minimise the use of VOCs without compromising on cleaning efficacy or performance. Our unique combination of equipment, chemistry, biotechnology and service are designed to change the way that we all clean.

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