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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's) are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure and easily form vapors at normal temperature and pressure.
The term is generally applied to organic solvents, certain paint additives, aerosol spray can propellants, fuels (such as gasoline, and kerosene), petroleum distillates, dry cleaning products and many other industrial and consumer products ranging from office supplies to building materials. VOC's are also naturally emitted by a number of plants and trees.
TVOC stands for Total VOC's and is the concentration of all VOC's in a given sample (there may be several different VOC's present in a sample).
A VOC number, VOC rating, or VOC content expresses the amount of volatile material in a sample, either in pounds per gallon, grams per liter or as a percentage by mass.
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VOC's are an important health and environmental concern for several reasons:
VOC's can be removed from air or water using special filtration systems. For example, activated charcoal absorbs many organic materials, but it has a limited capacity, is not an indicating adsorbent (so you won't know when it has reached its limit) and does not adsorb all materials.
Minimize or eliminate the use of VOC's whenever possible (see item #2 under Further Reading below). If you must use a VOC, minimize your exposure by using proper engineering controls such as a fume hood or other form of local exhaust ventilation. Gloves, a respirator and/or other appropriate personal protective equipment may also be necessary if the hazard can not otherwise be reduced to acceptable levels.
Whenever using a flammable material use adequate ventilation and remember that vapors may travel large distances. Heavier-than-air vapors (as most organic vapors are) can "pool" in low-lying areas, leading to an explosion when ignited by a flame, spark or static electricity. There are several reports each year of people blowing up their basements and themselves when using floor sealers etc. in a basement where the furnace or hot water heater pilot light ignited VOC's that had reached their lower explosive limit.
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See also: engineering controls, flash point, flammable limits, fume hood, NFPA, ventilation.
Additional definitions from Google and OneLook.
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