With more than 30 years’ experience in the residential and commercial water treatment space, Mark Nelson is a Class 1 Drinking-Water Operator and a CBWA (Canadian Bottled Water Association) Certified Plant Operator. As founder and president of Nelson Water in Ottawa, Mark focuses on dealing with challenging water treatment system designs for problem water. He also heads the largest water bottling plant in the city of Ottawa with a delivery network throughout the Valley.

VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, have been in the news recently and have become a major concern for our water supplies. VOCs are organic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, methylene chloride, and methyl chloroform, are carbon containing compounds that can evaporate into the air and sometimes end up in groundwater that have a very low boiling point and at ordinary room temperatures, they have a high vapor pressure. Unfortunately, there are many types of VOCs that can be hazardous to our health, so how do you know if your water is contaminated with VOCs?

The Source of VOCs

“VOCs” is a broad term that can be applied to many chemicals. There are naturally occurring VOCs such as those released from plants, while others are a result of manmade products. For example, paint strippers, lacquers, pesticides, disinfectants and building materials can all emit VOCs, while mowed grass is also a type of VOC known as a green leaf volatile. This should illustrate that while some VOCs are completely harmless, there are others that can have detrimental effects on your health, particularly when ingested. Although classified as “organic,” VOCs can be anything but healthy.

How VOCs Enter Drinking Water Supplies

When VOCs are improperly disposed of or spilled, they can soak into the ground. This allows the compounds to seep into the ground or form part of the runoff created by snowmelt or rainwater. When the VOCs reach the groundwater, they can contaminate the water supplies that are used in private wells and municipal facilities.

The Danger of VOCs

The main exposure route of VOCs is inhalation, but they can also be ingested through water and food. Since there are so many VOCs, the potential risks to health vary. Additionally, since many of these compounds are fairly new, their impact has not been fully explored. Agencies such as Environment Canada and Health Canada are continuing to identify VOCs that could pose a health risk or damage the ecosystem. Certain VOCs have been linked to headaches, irritation to the throat, eyes, and nose, nausea and other symptoms. Unfortunately, there is also a link between some VOCs and increased risk of developing cancer, organ damage or damage to the central nervous system.

The Chances of Exposure to VOCs

According to The Conference Board of Canada, the oil and gas industry is the largest contributor to VOCs in Canada (with 39 % of emissions), followed by transportation (22 %), and the use of paints and solvents (14 %). The remaining emissions are split roughly evenly among agriculture, home firewood burning, and other sources.

Canada gets a “D” and has the highest VOC emissions per capita and the top-ranking province, Ontario, gets a “B” and places 13th among the 26 comparator regions.

Reducing VOC Contamination

The first step to reducing contamination is water testing. You should have your well water tested to check for levels of known VOCs. You can also take proactive steps around your home to reduce the risk of VOC exposure. For example, properly disposing of old paint or chemicals you may have stored in your basement or garage. It is also a good idea to consider a domestic water treatment system. A point of entry system can be used to filter any VOCs from your water supply and ensure that it is safe for you and your family.