Volatile Organic Compounds Affect Human Health
UPdate spring 2005

In March 2003, Environment Canada organized meetings to develop an approach to reducing volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from consumer and commercial products. VOCs are a precursor of the particulate matter which, together with ozone, creates smog, a contributor to global warming. Thie following presentation was made by Sheila Cole, a member of the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia Advisory Board who participated in the meeting along with representatives of industry and government.

Today we face a critical condition in the world relating to industrial pollution and other emissions which has lead to the breakdown of ecosystems and human health. It is now common knowledge that at least 70,000 chemicals in regular daily use impact our lives on a continuous basis, challenging our immune systems. The cumulative load of things that affect our health has been called the "total load concept" by environmental medicine specialists. Body burden is another term used for this concept. Some people liken this burden to a rain barrel, filling drop by drop until it finally overflows.

VOCs form a large component of one's total body burden. They float around in the air,
accumulate in the soil and end up in groundwater. In terms of total body burden, we find the same chemicals constantly surfacing in many different places on a daily basis. Many of these are VOCs such as styrene, benzene, toluene, xylene, trichloroethelene -to name a few. When one looks at the list of chemicals found in hospital air, homes, schools, offices, shopping malls, commercial cleaning products, and even exhaled air, VOCs always feature prominently.

A US Environmental Protection Agency study examining the exhaled breath of 355 urban residents in New Jersey found that exhaled breath contained chloroform, trichloroethane, benzene, styrene, o-xylene, carbon tetrachloride, xylene, dichlorobenzene, ethyl benzyne, trichloroethelene, and tetrachloroethelene. Tom Dann of Environment Canada told me that benzene and tetrachlorethylene are two of the highest VOC values measured in the air in my city of Halifax.

Considering the ubiquitousness of so many of these chemicals, it is not surprising that several million Canadians now suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), whereby they are so sensitive to chemical exposure that even small amounts can trigger a reaction. MCS is an environmental illness. Other illnesses now included in this category are: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, asthma, Gulf War syndrome and

There is increasing evidence that constant low levels of chemical exposure can be as damaging as single exposures. Chemical sensitivity was first identified and documented by Dr. Theron Randolph in 1951. In his book, An Alternative Approach to Allergies (1989), he cites US EPA data which indicate that over 300 foreign chemicals have been found in human body fat. Again, styrene, zylene, toluene, and several benzenes are included. Several of these VOCs have also been found on cholesterol plaques within arteries.

Fragrance chemicals account for a significant part of the body burden. Fragrance is used in everything from cleaning products and scented laundry strips to perfumes, colognes, the new car scent and even scented toys. One fragrance chemical gaining attention recently is phthalates – a family of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects in the male reproductive system. They are also suspected of affecting the liver, kidneys, lungs and blood clotting capability. A recent analysis of 72 off the shelf name brand beauty products found that 75% contained phthalates.

The heavy chemical exposures that we endure are highly implicated in the huge increase in cancers that are affecting so many Canadians and others around the globe. This has been written about extensively by Dr. Samuel Epstein in his book The Politics of Cancer. In an article called Reversing the Cancer Epidemic, Dr. Epstein lays responsibility for this epidemic clearly at the feet of the chemical industry. Dr. Epstein has outlined many solutions for reducing, phasing out and eliminating some of the worst culprits completely. He has detailed legislative and voluntary ways that both government and industry can approach this problem. Many of these solutions are ones that we will hopefully be exploring over the course of the meeting today and tomorrow.

My message is that we should seek to take measures that are thorough in scope and which cut deeply into the load of toxins which are causing many to question and discard the old slogan "better living through chemistry". Failure to reduce the huge burden of chemicals to which we are exposed, of which VOCs are a critical part, will result in billions and billions of taxpayer dollars being spent in subsequent health care costs. The onus is on people like us in this room today to address these issues and lead the way for positive change to occur.

Sheila Cole is an environment and health educator, and writer who lives in Halifax.