Gulf Oil Spill Heightens Awareness of Air Quality and VOCs

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Chemicals from petroleum products are known to affect respiratory health

The oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is causing visible effects, like oil washing onto shore and oil-covered wildlife. Another effect that is not visible is caused by oil breaking down and becoming airborne.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been monitoring air quality along the coastline for several weeks, looking for evidence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as hydrogen sulfide, benzene and naphthalene. These compounds evaporate into the air, where they cause odors and symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye irritation and respiratory issues. Long-term exposure to high levels of VOCs has caused cancer and damage to organs and the nervous system.

“The effects of airborne VOCs at the Gulf coast are being closely monitored and people are reporting health symptoms,” said Craig Whittaker, a hygienist and air quality expert at Environmental Solutions Group (ESG) in Greensboro, NC. “What most people do not realize is that the levels of VOCs inside homes and businesses across the United States are often high enough to cause health issues like those being experienced at the Gulf coast.”

ESG routinely detects disturbing levels of airborne VOCs in homes and offices. There are some obvious sources of VOCs in homes, such as paint thinner, nail polish remover and hairspray, but little-known offenders such as building materials and furnishings slowly release VOCs over time. It is the long-term exposure risk that concerns environmental health professionals.

“We were once called to an office building where employees complained of headaches and nausea,” said Walt Schnabel, an air quality investigator with ESG. “We found high levels of total VOCs in many of the offices, and eventually traced the source of VOCs to a conference room that had new carpet and paint.”

The New York State Department of Health and other agencies have found that some VOCs are almost always found in indoor air. Experts recommend storing products containing VOCs in tightly sealed containers in a well-ventilated area. Repeated and prolonged ventilation may be necessary for reducing VOCs from new carpet or furniture.

“Proper ventilation is definitely a concern, especially with the growing emphasis on energy conservation through tighter buildings,” said Whittaker. “Our clients want us to identify the sources of VOCs in a building and make recommendations to limit their effect without sacrificing energy efficiency,” said Whittaker. “It is not always easy, but ESG’s building scientists will work to help achieve a balance between efficiency and safety.”

Since 2000, Environmental Solutions Group has been providing environmental and energy analysis services to schools, commercial, healthcare and residential environments. ESG is a GreenPlus Certified company and was awarded a 2010 Leadership in Housing Award from the EPA. For more information, visit


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