Archive for March, 2009

Volatile Organic Compounds, Why They’re Bad, Why They’re In Your House, and Why FEMA Wasn’t Really at Fault for the Trailer Formaldehyde Debacle.

Posted in Environmental Health, ethical consumerism, healthcare, politics, sustainability on March 18, 2009 by theseep

In the course of my classes for my Master’s of Public Health, I’ve been doing quite a bit on environmental health. I’m sorry I’ve been a bit slack on the posts, but it’s because of school so besides a baby blog, I’m going to start posting excerpts from some of my papers and discussions. The bonus is that I’ll be adding citations for references and data support for the discussion. This is from a paper on environmental causes of health problems and exposure to chemicals, the section on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs:

“This problem effects us all in varying levels, but can disproportionally effect those living in areas with concentrated levels of certain chemicals, those that regularly utilize potentially hazardous products, and especially those in developing nations where many modern potentially hazardous substances and products are produced or disposed of. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly are also at greater risk for developing disease from lower levels of exposure (Freedman, et al, 2001). Shifts in exposure can occur quickly as well, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where thousands of people were displaced from their homes and many were provided trailers to live in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was found later that these trailers, made from standard off-the-shelf building materials, were off-gassing enough volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde to cause significant health problems in many of those living in them (Final Report on Formaldehyde, 2008). Although it was dismissed by some, offering that these types of trailers were not meant to live in for prolonged periods, these very same materials such as pressboard, melamine, paints and sealants, are used in regular home construction as well and can affect any homeowner given the proper concentrations and conditions.” (Slaughter, Environmental, 2009)

Next is a brief definition of VOCs and some human health effects:

The selected toxicologic agent for discussion is Toluene, described on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website as “among the most abundantly produced chemicals in the United States.” (Toluene: Medical Management, 2007). Toluene is an aromatic hydrocarbon molecule that is a type of volatile organic compound (VOC). It is found abundantly throughout our society, in gasoline, glues, inks, dyes, lacquers, paints, pesticides, cleaners, and other household and industrial products (Olson, 1999). Although exposures and overdoses are seen in industrial accidents, it is also commonly abused through “huffing” or “sniffing” the fumes to produce dizzyness and euphoria. It can produce human toxicity through inhalation, ingestion, skin or mucous membrane exposure, is passed through uterine circulation to a fetus, and is also passed in breast milk (Toluene: Medical Management, 2007). Toluene causes a significant amount of toxicity, often from acute exposures, although chronic exposures occur as well, with effects including skin irritation, corneal abrasions, tremors, ataxia (unsteady gait), nausea, headache, and even renal failure and death in high enough doses. Also, because of it’s physical properties like other VOCs, toluene can cause asphyxiation from concentrated inhalation as well as chemical pneumonitis and respiratory failure from aspiration (Olson, 1999). ” (Slaughter, Online discussion, 2009)

So really, even though FEMA made some mistakes, people getting sick from the formaldehyde levels in the trailers wasn’t their fault. The trailers were actually the fault of the EPA and other regulatory bodies that should have been keeping VOCs out of our building materials in the first place, and a building materials industry that doesn’t always take adequate precautions to protect their consumers. Bottom line – have an idea of what you’re consuming and what’s in it.

There are over 85,000 chemicals used in the U.S. in industry and consumer goods, of which we have full toxicologic data for about 7%. That’s a lot we don’t know. Even though we don’t know all of the effects of many of the chemicals we are being exposed to, there is good scientific evidence that some of the more toxic ones and some of the commonly used chemicals cause significant human health problems, even cancer. Exposures are incredibly variable and many of the severe health effects are often accidental or one-time exposures, occupational, or from long-term, chronic exposures, so most people will probably be just fine. However, we’ll see a few thousand people die or get ill from pesticide exposure here, a few hundred thousand cancers from smoking and other carcinogen exposures there, some kids losing 30 or 40 IQ points from lead exposure in homes and toys, male frogs turning into females or having extra legs, little stuff, not really a big deal, right? OR, we could change the way we regulate chemicals to use the precautionary principle and properly test chemicals for human health risks before allowing them to be sold to consumers. Pretty easy way to save lives and an incredible amount of healthcare spending, really.


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2007). Toluene: Medical Management Guidelines. Retrieved on March 12, 2009 from:

Freedman, D., Stewart, P., Kleinerman, R., Wacholder, S., Hatch, E., Tarone, R., Robison, L., Linet, M. (2001). Household Solvent Exposures and Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. American Journal of Public Health. 91:4

Centers for Disease Control (2008). Final Report on Formaldehyde Levels in FEMA-Supplied Travel Trailers, Park Models, and Mobile Homes. Retrieved on December 28, 2008 from:

Olgar, S., Oktem, F., Dindar, A., Kilbas, A., Turkoglu, U., Cetin, H., et al. (2008). Volatile solvent abuse caused glomerulopathy and tubulopathy in street children. Human and Experimental Toxicology. 27:477-483. Retrieved on March 12, 2009 from: EBSCO Database, Walden Library.

Olson, K. (Ed.). (1999). Poisoning and Drug Overdose. Stamford: Appleton and Lange.

Slaughter, C. (2009). Online Discussion. PUBH 6105 Environmental Health Class. Walden University

Slaughter, C. (2009). Environmental Causes of Illness. Final Paper. Course 6115: Social, Behavioral and Cultural Factors in Public Health. Walden University