Everybody wants access to clear and clean drinking water. After all, humans can’t survive without it. With 70% of our bodies made up of water, it is vital for the circulation of blood and nutrients into our system. But water contamination is widespread. And VOCs contamination is a primary concern for many people. In this article, we will answer the question: what are VOCs in water?
VOCs are everywhere. We are all exposed to products that contain them. Whether at home, at work, or the mall, we are in constant contact with VOCs.
VOCs are the short name for volatile organic compounds. They are chemicals that vaporize or evaporate at room temperatures. What is usual with them is the presence of carbon in their composition. And that they vaporize fast.
Here are some products that contain VOCs:
- Air fresheners
- Cleaning chemicals
Since VOCs are carbon-based chemicals, they are dangerous to humans. There are two ways that humans get in contact with them.
First, we can inhale them. The smell of gasoline or detergent bleach are examples of VOCs that emit odor. Second, we can drink them through contaminated water. Most VOCs dissolved in water are free from odor and tasteless.
Most of these chemicals evaporate into the air. And in doing so increases global warming. Carbon traps radioactive sunlight in the atmosphere through the greenhouse effect. Aside from increasing temperature, it also destroys the ozone layer. It is the protective layer of oxygen in the air.
VOCs can also seep into water sources like underground wells and rivers. The EPA estimates that one-fifth of the water supply in the US has VOCs contamination. The reasons include improper waste disposal, leaking fuel tanks, and water purification methods. So, what are VOCs in water?
What are VOCs in water?
To answer the question: what are VOCs in water? we will consider the three types of VOCs contamination:
- Perchloroethylene or PCE.
- Methyl tert-butyl ether or MTBE.
Trihalomethane is the chemical compound that is most common today. It is the result of water purification using chlorine. When water from lakes and rivers gets treated with chlorine, they form trihalomethane.
Chlorination happens in all water treatment facilities. And it is done in every city or town. It is not surprising that VOC contamination is in water everywhere. True, you are killing bacteria when you clean your deep well water source with chlorine. But you are also producing VOCs that contaminate your drinking water.
PCE is a chemical produced when you use solvents. It is the main ingredient of dry-cleaning solutions. It is also a staple in factories and automotive shops since they remove grease from metals. PCE can clean tires, loosen grease in brakes and engines, and remove paints.
PCE was first used in the USA in the 1900s for dry cleaning and metal parts degreasing. But its popularity declined in the 20th century when the EPA called it a hazardous waste. Today, dry cleaning services still use it all over the world. And because these shops also do laundry, PCE finds its way to sewage and water filtration systems.
MTBE is an additive for fuel. It helps to increase the octane of gasoline to improve fuel stability. And the higher the octane, the better the fuel performance. MTBE saw its first application in the 90s to follow the Clean Air Act to reduce air pollution.
Before the discovery of MTBE, lead was the preferred fuel additive. But it is a poisonous substance to both the air and the environment. So, scientists began to look for alternatives. They found the chemical compound MTBE that can replace lead. At the same time, it adds oxygen to fuel to follow the law for cleaner emissions.
But, the groundwater in several locations tested positive for MTBE contamination. This chemical dissolves 100% in water, seeps through the soil, and is resistant to bacteria.
What are the health effects of VOCs?
As a class of chemicals, VOCs are hazardous to humans. But each chemical in this group can react differently to different people. Some may be more sensitive, especially if you have existing health conditions. Asthmatic, hypertensive, and hepatitis patients are likely to develop adverse reactions.
Here is the list of health problems associated with exposure to VOCs.
- Irritation of eyes, nose, and throat
- Asthma attacks
- Diseases of the liver and kidneys
- Brain and nerve damage
The first four health problems are minor side effects and are not life-threatening. But, it shows within hours or days of exposure to VOCs. The last four complications are deadly and need immediate medical attention. It may take years before the symptoms manifest.
For sure, there are few studies on the effects of VOCs contamination on humans. But, animal experiments prove that they can cause cancer, kidney and liver diseases. It can also cause a central nervous system failure.
The EPA has issued guidelines on the safe level of VOCs for water distributors and providers to ensure that the health risks are kept low. To date, it regulates twenty-three VOCs and requires city water suppliers to check them regularly. If the VOC contamination levels exceed the standards, they act to reduce their quantity. Only when the VOCs are below the limit can this water be distributed to residential areas.
How do I know if my water has VOCs contamination?
By now, you already know the answer to the question: what are VOCs in water? We also discussed that VOC contamination in humans can happen in two ways. One is through the air, and the other is by drinking contaminated water. If you suspect that you have VOCs contamination, you must identify the source first. It is because prevention and treatment are different for each one.
Airborne VOCs typically have a distinct odor. Think of the smell of gasoline or laundry bleach. Also, since the concentration of these chemicals in the air is heavy, you will feel the symptoms fast.
Some may feel dizzy or vomit. Others may develop allergy-like symptoms like redness of the eyes, itchy throat, and constant sneezing. Still, some may experience asthma attacks. If you have children in the house, air contamination by volatile organic compounds is more concerning.
The first aid for this type of VOC contamination is straightforward. Open the doors and windows and get fresh air inside the house. It will neutralize the chemicals and blow away the contaminated air. Also, avoid using air fresheners and cleaning solutions that may have VOCs as their active ingredient.
For the second type that involves water contamination, the process is trickier. First, VOCs contamination in water has no odor. And it does not result in a weird taste. So sensorial identification will not work.
Also, the symptoms are not immediately noticeable. It may be because the chemicals are not as concentrated as in the air since water dilutes them. Or maybe because it takes a longer time for VOCs to go through the blood vessel and reach the vital organs.
So, how will you know if your water has VOCs contamination? If you get your drinking water from the water district supplier, you can go and ask them. Based on guidelines from the EPA, they should be keeping a record of harmful VOCs.
If you get water from a deep well, then the best way is to get it tested. Bring a water sample to a laboratory in your area. Ask for water assessment for VOCs and other harmful substances. Alternately, there are test kits available at Amazon or from the National Testing Laboratories.
How do you remove VOCs from contaminated water?
The dangers of drinking VOCs contaminated water are real. But, you can do something about it. There are effective ways of removing these substances from your drinking water. The two methods are carbon filtration and reverse osmosis.
Carbon filtration is a water purification method using activated carbon to start adsorption. Yes, adsorption is different from absorption. Adsorption is a surface-level process, while absorption is the dissolution of the entire material. In adsorption, the molecules or ions cling together in the same way surface tension happens and creates a film of particles.
In this method, the contaminants are filtered out of the water by trapping impurities in the carbon filters. It can remove chlorine, silt, and volatile organic compounds or VOCs. In this process, the weird taste and foul odor of contaminated water get eliminated.
Since VOCs are carbon-based, they stick to the activated carbon in the filter. It is the reason why this filtration method is the best solution for VOCs contamination in water. Once the carbon molecules get trapped, pure water can pass through the pipes. And you can now enjoy VOCs-free drinking water.
The other filtration method that can remove VOCs is the reverse osmosis system. Reverse osmosis does not remove VOCs from the water. Carbon can pass through the membrane of reverse osmosis systems with no problems.
But the complete RO system has three layers of filtration. Also, the semi-permeable membrane at the second layer has filters that remove VOCs. The first panel is the pre-filter, and the last panel is the post-filter. The carbon filter can be anywhere from the pre-filter to the post-filter or both. Usually, carbon is on the final panel.
Now we have answered the question: what are VOCs in water? Make sure that you take practical steps to protect yourself. But don’t keep it to yourself. Other people need to know for themselves, what are VOCs in water?