Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

What are VOCs? Where are they found? When are they dangerous? How are they detected? What does the legislation require?

What are VOCs?


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a large and heterogeneous class of chemical compounds that have the characteristic of evaporating easily, even at room temperature, transforming into gas or vapors. VOCs can be divided into different categories based on their chemical properties and are the main source of indoor pollution.


What types of VOCs are there?


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a very complex and heterogeneous class of compounds. The main types include:

  • Aliphatic hydrocarbons
  • Aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Ketones
  • Esters
  • Alcohols
  • Terpenes
  • Aldehydes

What is the origin of VOCs?


VOCs can come from a variety of sources, both natural and anthropogenic, including:


Materials and finished products: substances contained in paints, varnishes, pesticides, cleaning and detergents, furniture, construction materials, materials inside car interiors, personal care products, etc


Motor vehicles: exhaust emissions from gasoline and diesel engines


Industrial processes: industrial activities such as the production of plastics and chemicals


Combustion: incomplete combustion processes, such as those in stoves and fireplaces, candles, incense


Vegetation: some VOCs are emitted directly from plants and flowers.


Are VOCs dangerous?


Some VOCs are known for their effects on human health and the environment. Long-term exposure, or at high levels, can cause respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, and in some cases damage to the liver, kidneys, or nervous system.


Some VOCs, such as formaldehyde and benzene, are classified as carcinogens (Formaldehyde 1B EU n.605/2014 - Benzene A1 IARC).


Detection and measurement of VOCs


The accurate detection and measurement of VOCs plays a fundamental role in the assessment of air quality and the protection of human health.


Volatile organic compounds are detected in advanced laboratories using specific instrumentation. In particular, the evaluation and identification of VOC emissions from materials is carried out by extracting organic substances in special VOC environmental analysis chambers and then analyzing the air samples taken. This can be done through gas chromatography and mass spectrometry or other equivalent advanced techniques.


What does Italian and European legislation provide for in the field of VOCs?


Italian and European legislation in the field of VOCs aims to regulate the emission and use of Volatile Organic Compounds in order to protect human health and the environment, reducing atmospheric pollution and promoting the use of low-emission VOC products.

Some of the main directives and regulations include:


Directive 2004/42/EC on the limitation of emissions of volatile organic compounds due to the use of organic solvents in paints, varnishes and vehicle refinishing products (also known as the VOC Directive for paints): Introduced in the European Union to limit VOC emissions from the use of paints and varnishing products. Sets maximum VOC limits for different product categories, promoting the use of low-emission formulations. Requires product labelling with information on VOC content.


Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008: also known as the CLP Regulation (Classification, Labelling and Packaging), harmonizes the classification, labelling and packaging system for chemicals in the EU. Products containing VOCs that are classified as hazardous to health or the environment must be labelled accordingly.


Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006: the REACH Regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) requires the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals in the EU.


CAM Criteria - Minimum Environmental Criteria for Building (D.M. 23/06/2022) which provides for compliance with specific limits for VOC emissions from certain types of building products.


CAM Criteria - Minimum Environmental Criteria for Furniture (D.M. 23/06/2022) which provides for compliance with specific limits for VOC emissions from certain types of furniture.


Manufacturers obligations for VOCs


Manufacturers of products that may emit VOCs must comply with emission limits set by specific directives, such as the VOC Directive for paints.
They must label products clearly and completely, indicating the VOC content and possible health and environmental consequences.
Manufacturers must take into account restrictions on use and limitations based on the classification of chemicals under the CLP regulation.
In the REACH context, manufacturers must register high-volume chemicals produced in or imported into the EU and provide data on the safety and use of the substances.
In the CAM context, they must perform tests that ensure compliance with the emission limits reported in the decree.


The strategy that more and more manufacturers are pursuing is to develop low-VOC-emitting products to comply with regulations and to meet the growing demands for environmental sustainability in order to turn legal cogency into market opportunity.


It is important to note that regulations may change over time and require further updates and adaptations by manufacturers and regulatory authorities to address emerging environmental and health challenges.

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