Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) are a class of liquid or solid chemicals that evaporate into gases. These compounds play a significant role in environmental pollution and can often be found in groundwater.
Groundwater, an invisible but vital resource, provides drinking water to 155 million people and supports a daily pump of over 75 billion gallons. While groundwater remains a reliable source, it is not immune to contamination, and understanding the factors influencing groundwater quality is important.
Health Effects of VOCs Exposure
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates 23 volatile organic compounds, and city water suppliers must monitor them. If VOC levels exceed EPA-established maximum contaminant levels, corrective actions are required.
VOCs pose health risks due to their diversity. However, evidence suggests that exposure to VOCs can cause various adverse effects, including:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
- Headaches and coordination loss.
- Prolonged exposure can damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.
- VOCs in water, especially when inhaled as steam during a hot shower, can potentially lead to skin irritation.
- VOCs in shower water can strip your hair of natural oils, leaving it dry, brittle, and prone to breakage.
- VOCs can cause various cancer types. For instance,
- Benzene increases leukemia and lymphoma risk.
- Carbon tetrachloride, a solvent, increases non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk.
- Tetrachloroethylene, or PERC, a dry-cleaning chemical, causes bladder cancer.
- Trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent and dry-cleaning chemical, can cause liver, kidney, and blood cancer.
VOCs in Groundwater
VOCs in groundwater are a concern, especially for individuals who rely on well water for drinking and irrigation purposes. It’s essential to differentiate between domestic and irrigation wells.
While domestic wells supply water for drinking, cooking, laundry, and other household uses within the home, irrigation wells are predominantly used for outdoor purposes. For example, watering gardens and lawns.
How VOCs Enter Groundwater
Most VOCs enter the water supply directly due to human activity, primarily due to improper handling and disposal.
- Leaching into Ground: Improper disposal of volatile organic compounds can lead to leaching into the ground. This initial infiltration often occurs near industrial sites, dry cleaners, and gas stations.
- Migration to Aquifers: Once VOCs infiltrate groundwater, they can migrate from aquifers to other water bodies, such as lakes and reservoirs.
- Precipitation Transport: VOCs can be further transported through precipitation. Rainfall and other forms of precipitation can carry these compounds from contaminated areas to water supplies, including wells and municipal water treatment plants.
Common Waterborne VOCs
A 2006 U.S. Geological Survey study of groundwater and drinking water wells found VOCs in 90 of 98 aquifers tested nationwide, with the most frequent detections in California, Florida, Nevada, and the New England and mid-Atlantic states.
They are commonly found in gasoline, diesel fuel, petroleum-based products, carpets, paints, varnishes, glues, and more.
Industries use VOCs in automobiles, electronics, wood products, adhesives, and plastics.
VOCs are present in everyday products such as perfumes, deodorants, insect repellents, and pharmaceuticals.
While numerous VOCs can be found in water, three of the most prevalent are:
- Trihalomethane: Trihalomethane is the most common VOC in water and is a byproduct of water disinfection. It forms when chlorine is added to water for sterilization, especially in municipal water treatment plants. It is also created when private well owners use chlorine in their wells.
- PCE (Perchloroethylene): PCE is a byproduct of solvents and is commonly used in dry cleaning and industrial degreasing. It can also be found in consumer products like shoe polish and inks.
- MTBE (Methyl tert-butyl ether): MTBE is a fuel additive and was introduced when lead was phased out of gasoline. It has been found in groundwater due to spillages and leaks from underground storage tanks.
Responding to High VOCs Levels in Well Water
If your domestic well has VOC levels exceeding safe drinking water standards, it is crucial to take appropriate actions to protect your health and your Family. In such cases:
- Do Not Use Contaminated Water: Avoid drinking or cooking with well water and arrange for an alternative water supply, such as bottled water. Boiling water is not recommended as it releases VOCs into the air, where they can be inhaled.
- Exercise Caution with Household Activities: Depending on VOCs levels, it is necessary to be cautious during activities like bathing, showering, hand washing, dishwashing, and using appliances like dishwashers or laundry machines. VOCs released into the air during these activities can be inhaled.
- Ventilate Indoor Areas: To reduce the presence of VOCs in the air, ventilate indoor areas by opening windows or using exhaust fans while using your water.
Activated carbon filter for removing VOCs from water
Activated carbon filters remove VOCs from water due to their adsorption properties.
Since VOCs are organic compounds, they are carbon-based, and activated carbon filters can capture and eliminate these compounds.
These filters come in various forms, including point-of-use systems such as water pitchers, under-sink filters, countertop filters, and whole-house filtration systems.
Reverse Osmosis (RO) for VOC Removal
Reverse osmosis systems remove VOCs from water, but they require carbon pre-filters or post-filters. RO alone is ineffective at removing VOCs, as these compounds can pass through the RO membrane. Carbon filters are commonly integrated into RO systems and capture VOCs before reaching drinking water.
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In summary, understanding the sources of VOCs in water, their health risks, and the available methods for their removal is vital to safeguarding water quality. This is vital to protecting individuals’ and communities’ health. Regular testing and appropriate water filtration systems are essential steps in addressing VOC contamination.
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- National Research Council (US) Committee on Contaminated Drinking Water at Camp Lejeune. Contaminated Water Supplies at Camp Lejeune: Assessing Potential Health Effects. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009. 3, Systemic Exposures to Volatile Organic Compounds and Factors Influencing Susceptibility to Their Effects. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
- Comparative Risk Analysis of Six Volatile Organic Compounds in California Drinking Water Pamela Williams, Laurie Benton, John Warmerdam, and Patrick Sheehan Environmental Science & Technology 2002 36 (22), 4721-4728 DOI: 10.1021/es020725y
- Environmental Protection Agency. Integrated Risk Information System Assessment for 1,2-Dichloroethane. 1987. Available at cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/iris2/
- California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Public Health Goal for 1,2-Dichloropropane in Drinking Water. 1999. Available at oehha.ca.gov/media/downloads/
- Environmental Protection Agency. Integrated Risk Information System Assessment for 1,1,2-Trichloroethane. 1987. Available at cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/iris2/