“The Use of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Printing Industry and It’s Adverse effects on Public Heath”


Blake Owens 2009




Volatile organic compounds (VOC s) are high vapor pressure, low water solubility compounds found in many man made chemicals (USGS, 2007, ¶ 1).  There are thousands of products that contain such VOC s ranging from everyday household cleaners to industrial strength solvents (USGS, 2007, ¶ 1).  One industry that this paper will be focusing on is the printing industry and its practices.  Inks, cleaners, solvents, emulsions, thinners, retardants and de-emulsifiers are all integral parts of everyday production in the printing industries and many of these contain VOC s.  While it may seem distant to the everyday observer, these printing businesses go on to use VOC based products to produce stickers, t-shirts, labels, newspapers, magazines, packaging; virtually anything with print on it has a good chance of having a VOC involved in its production somewhere.  While the print on ones newspaper is not going to jump up and start running amuck, by the time that the paper has been printed, those VOC s have had ample chance to do damage.  Exposure to VOC s can cause a whole range of health problems, from respiration illness to cancer. VOC s can greatly affect workers in the print industry and beyond.  “Sick building syndrome” (SBS) and “building related illness” (BRI) are both directly related to VOC s and affect a large working population (EPA, 2008, ¶ 1,2 ).  VOC levels are 2 to 5 times higher inside buildings and homes than outside even in highly polluted industrial areas (EPA, 2009, ¶ 3).  In poorly ventilated buildings in which volatile organic compounds are in use, the concentration could be even higher and risk for adverse health effects greatly increased.  As demand for a safer, healthier workplace increases so does the demand for less VOC use in industries. New “green” or “eco-friendly” businesses have sprouted up creating alternatives to VOC s.


Volatile Organic Compounds


            A volatile organic compound is by EPA definition: “Any organic compound that participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions except those designated by EPA as having negligible photochemical reactivity.” (EPA, 2008).  Another definition by the Minnesota Department of health states: “Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC s) are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature.”  (MDH, 2009, ¶ 1).  Some of the most common VOC s in use today are acetone, benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, perchloroethylene, toluene, xylene, 1,3-butadiene (MDH 2009, ¶ 1).  Virtually all companies and industries use some products that contain VOC s, there are however some industries that use much more than others. These include the printing industry, dry cleaning stores, painting industries, industrial coatings companies, and chemical manufacturing (EPA, 2009, ¶ 13, 14,15).   Each industry uses VOC s to aid in some form of production of a product or service.


The use of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Printing Industry


The printing industry contains many different types of businesses.  Almost everything that has print on it has come into contact with some sort of printing business. A vast majority of these businesses share at least one common thread; they use VOC s for printing and cleanup. The “Volatile” in VOC refers to the fact that these chemicals easily evaporate or dissipate (MDH 2009, ¶ 1).  This is beneficial in many “solvent based inks” since once the ink is thinly dispersed on its substrate, dissipation of the solvent leaves behind the dry print.  Other uses for VOC s are in solvents for cleaning up the inks once they have dried. The addition of the same solvent allows for easy cleanup of dried ink. Benzene is used in rubber cement which was an integral part of graphic design in the years before computer graphics were prevalent. Acetone is an all purpose cleaner or solvent which can clean most adhesives, paints and inks. Methylene chloride is used in the removal of adhesives, inks and paints, but is also used in aerosol based products commonly implemented in the printing industry (EPA, 2009, ¶ 13).  


Adverse Health Effects from Volatile Organic Compounds


Human exposure to VOC s is centuries old (M. Faraday, 1825).  Outdoor human exposure increased greatly in the 20th century with the automobile, and indoor exposure increased with industry and cigarette smoking (L.Wallace, 2001).  These increases have created a multitude of scenarios that greatly accelerate chances of adverse effects from VOC s. One scenario using methylene chloride to strip paint exposed the subject to the equivalent of a lifetime of normal level exposure in only 8 hours (L. Wallace, 2001).  Increased exposure to VOC s can cause a whole gamut of health problems including “eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system.” (EPA, 2009, ¶ 5).  A study of nearly 1000 adult humans showed that exposure to dichlorobenzene resulted in reduced pulmonary functions in said humans (Elliott, Longnecker, Kissling, London, 2006).  “Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.” (EPA, 2009, ¶ 6).  There have also been findings to suggest that indoor VOC exposure might be linked with increasing asthma cases; “such an effect should only be expected in those who are exposed by inhalation, an exposure that may be limited to occupational settings.” (G.D. Nielson, 2007).  Two particularly troubling and difficult problems with indoor VOC exposure are “sick building syndrome” (SBS) and “building related illness” (BRI) .  These problems stem from poor air quality, VOC exposure, poor air circulation, dust and many other factors (L. Wallace, 2001).  It is estimated that SBS, BRI and general poor air quality costs 100 billion dollars annually due to medical visits and decreased worker production (L. Wallace, 2001).  With standard office buildings suffering from SBS it is not difficult to imagine how much more affected the printing industry is with all the VOC s in use everyday. A medium sized print shop can go through several hundred gallons of VOC based products every year. Without proper ventilation and protection, employees can be exposed to monumental amounts of VOC s on nearly a daily basis (L. Wallace, 2001).  Even sealed VOC containers can contribute to poor indoor air quality (EPA, 2009, ¶ 11).


Alternatives and Improvements


            There are many options available today for industries to reduce VOC use and improve indoor air quality. These improvements are not only beneficial to the employees but also the company as poor air quality can adversely affect employee production. There are a growing number of “green” solvents, inks, cleaners, lubricants and other products that traditionally might have been a VOC based product. Derived from different naturally occurring plant matter, such as soy beans and corn, these alternative products offer much less reactivity, flammability and overall health risks.  While these can benefit a great number of businesses, there are some however which cannot substitute VOC s or have no other options available. Improving ventilation, investing in protective suits and masks, disposing of outdated storage cans, and better educating its employees can all greatly decrease the effects of VOC s on employees (EPA, 2009, ¶ 11).  One of the major innovations in the printing industry is the use of UV dried inks. Instead of using a volatile based ink to evaporate and cure, the ink is instantly dried by a powerful light source.  The ink uses no VOC and emits no toxic gases (Kalkowski, 2007). 




The implementation of volatile organic compounds has been utilized in global industries for centuries and continues to be used.  There are many different uses for VOC based products in the printing industry due to their volatile nature and excellent solvency.  Despite their usefulness, VOC s pose significant health risks to the working population of industries including respiratory illness, headaches, cancer, asthma, skin irritation and decreased pulmonary function (EPA, 2009, ¶ 5,6) (Elliott et al, 2006).  Sick building syndrome and building related illness are both partially attributed to VOC s in buildings and cost billions every year.  Industries now have many alternatives to the use of VOC s and many ways to better control the use and ventilation thereof.  Industries who embrace a healthier workplace will not only improve the quality of life for its workers but increase efficiency due to a more productive workforce (L. Wallace, 2001).



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