What are they and what are their effects?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are found in everything from paints and coatings to underarm deodorant and cleaning fluids. They are a major concern of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state air quality boards all over the United States. VOCs have been found to be a major contributing factor to ozone, a common air pollutant which has been proven to be a public health hazard.
While ozone in the upper atmosphere is beneficial, ozone at ground level is quite the opposite. The atmospheric ozone layer helps protect us from the sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays. Ground level ozone, however, is a highly reactive gas that according to EPA studies "affects the normal function of the lung in many healthy humans."
These studies show that breathing air with ozone concentrations above air quality standards aggravates symptoms of people with pulmonary diseases and seems to increase rates of asthma attacks. There is also evidence that prolonged exposure to ozone causes permanent damage to lung tissue and interferes with the functioning of the immune system.
Ozone has been a difficult pollutant to control because it is not emitted into the air, but actually formed in the atmosphere through a photochemical process. It is in this process that VOCs play a significant role. VOCs in the air react with oxides of nitrogen and sunlight to form ozone. For this reason, the EPA has determined that controlling VOCs is an effective method for minimizing ozone levels.
California was the first state to enact laws limiting the VOC content in paints and coatings. New York, New Jersey, Texas and Arizona have already joined California with regional laws of their own, and it is expected that more states will soon follow. Traditionally, California's environmental rules have set a precedence for federal regulations, as well as those of other states. The EPA is currently engaged in a regulatory negotiation process to develop a national VOC regulation that will be effective in all states.