Volatile Organic Compounds in your Water

Their presence in a wide range of products has made Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) among the most alarming of all drinking water contaminants. Paints, paint thinners, protective coatings, gasoline, moth balls, hair sprays, adhesives, and vinyl floors are just a few of the many materials that contain VOCs. 

As our population continues to grow, demand for these materials likewise continues to rise. Over the last 4 to 5 decades, the manufacture of these chemicals have increased considerably. Consequently, we can expect a corresponding significant increase in exposure to VOCs.

In a national assessment of VOCs in domestic and public wells conducted by the US Geological Survey in 2006, eight (8) regulated VOCs were found to have concentrations higher than their Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). An MCL is an EPA standard that sets the maximum allowable amount for a contaminant to be found in water supplied by a public water system.

The regulated compounds in question included: trichloroethene (TCE), ethylene dibromide (EDB), methylene chloride, dibromochloropropane (DBCP), perchloroethene (PCE), 1,1-dichloroethene, 1,2-dichloropropane, and vinyl chloride. Of the eight, seven are believed to be human carcinogens. That is, they increase the risk of cancer. 

Volatile organic compounds can be introduced into the human body either through contaminated water, food, or air. Fortunately, those found in drinking water can be easily removed using water purification systems. In fact, high quality water purification systems can achieve up to 99.9999999% removal, and thus reduce VOC concentration in drinking water down to levels way below detectable limits.

Harmful effects of Volatile Organic Compounds on the human body

VOCs that enter the human body through contaminated food or water tend to accumulate in the liver, kidney, brain, and fatty tissues. That is why most of the harmful health effects of VOCs are found in those areas. Headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, kidney damage, liver damage, and cancer are some of the health effects known to be caused by these organic chemicals.

Because volatile organic compounds have low boiling points, they easily evaporate (liquid to gas) or sublimate (solid to gas), subsequently mixing with the surrounding air. Once in gas form, they then pose another set of health risks, this time, to our respiratory systems. Studies have shown that homes with higher concentrations of certain VOCs exhibited more incidents of throat irritation, nasal congestion, rhinitis, as well as increased asthma attacks.

Where do VOCs found in drinking water come from?

As mentioned earlier, volatile organic compounds are used to produce an extensive line of products. The VOCs that end up in our drinking water may come from a leak or simply from improper disposal by those who use them for manufacturing or other processes. Although a part of these chemicals evaporate, the rest gets absorbed by the soil and find their way into the ground water.

In the US, almost half of the population and over 90% of people who live in rural areas source their water from ground water. The closer the water source is from a commercial or industrial area, the greater the chances are of getting VOC-contaminated drinking water in that area. 

Groundwater moves rather slowly. So after a VOC is dumped or spilled on the ground, it will take some time for the contaminated ground water to reach a drinking water source. This means, even if you test your water for VOC following a major industrial spill or leakage nearby, a negative result doesn’t mean you’ll be safe from these contaminants in the years to come.


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