Adopting proactive standards to protect Americans in indoor environments: volatile organic compound emissions regulation.

Author:Andris, James M., Jr.

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS A. What Are Volatile Organic Compounds? B. Consumer Appliances as Sources of VOC Emissions II. TRADITIONAL LEGISLATIVE INTENT BEHIND VOC EMISSION REGULATION A. The Clean Air Act 1. National Ambient Air Quality Standards 2. Regulating Hazardous Air Pollutants B. The Occupational Safety and Health Act C. The Toxic Substances Control Act D. Summarizing the Inadequacies of Current Regulations III. NEW HORIZONS FOR THE CLEAN AIR ACT A. Expanding the EPA's Power B. The Cumulatively Dangerous Air Pollutant Amendment 1. Proposed Amendment 2. Commentary on the Proposed Amendment IV. INDOOR AIR QUALITY REGULATION WOULD BENEFIT PUBLIC HEALTH WHILE ENCOURAGING INDUSTRIAL INNOVATION A. A Healthier, More Industrious Population B. Encouraging Innovation and Efficiency C. Substantiating State and Private Interest Attempts V. INDUSTRIAL OPPOSITION AND CHALLENGES TO THE PROPOSED AMENDMENT A. Obstacles to Passing the Amendment 1. Tangled Political Strings 2. Controversies Surrounding Air Quality Cases B. Possible Challenges to Future Regulations 1. Lack of Significant Risk 2. Technological and Economic Feasibility CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

In 1993, the Colorado Department of Health issued the Adolph Coors Brewing Company a $1.05 million fine, the largest penalty in the Department's history, for spilling beer during Coors's brewing and treatment process. (1) In 2012, a jury awarded Wayne Watson a $7.2 million verdict against the manufacturer and distributor of his favorite microwavable popcorn, successfully holding both companies liable for the development of his respiratory illness. (2) Separated by nearly a decade, these two incidents are connected by millions of invisible particles. Those particles constitute the bases of both Colorado's fine against Coors--specifically the particles' detrimental effect on outdoor air quality (3)--and Mr. Watson's windfall--the cause of his life-altering condition. (4) They are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

VOCs are everywhere and harmless at normal levels. (5) Yet, researchers consistently find them in exponentially higher concentrations indoors than outdoors. (6) When exposed to these high concentrations, individuals can suffer from a plethora of negative health effects. (7) Recent research has indicated that personal computers and printers are among the many sources of indoor VOC emissions. (8) Despite this research and the known dangers of VOC emissions in indoor environments, (9) the government does not currently regulate them. Instead, the scope of federal VOC emission regulation is limited by the concern for outdoor air quality and indoor industrial settings. (10) Considering the average person in the United States spends approximately 90 percent of his or her time indoors, (11) this regulatory gap must be filled in a way that protects health interests and prevents degradation of indoor air quality, even if that end is accomplished under the guise of promulgating outdoor air quality standards, a more traditional focus of environmental regulation. (12)

To provide an elementary understanding of VOCs, Part I of this Note explains VOCs in greater detail and summarizes the contemporary research linking electronic appliances to their emissions. Part II investigates the traditional legislative intent behind VOC regulation while probing the shortcomings of the statutes that directly and indirectly authorize those regulations. Part III proposes an amendment to the Clean Air Act, the Cumulatively Dangerous Air Pollutant Amendment, which would expand the scope of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority to monitor VOCs and indoor air quality. Part IV details the many benefits that would result from granting the EPA this power. Lastly, Part V of this Note acknowledges and dismisses common counterarguments to public-health-oriented amendments as well as the consequential regulations.

This Note is unique in that it addresses recent scientific developments concerning VOC emission rates from electronics and their impact on human health. Within the past decade, only one federal agency has attempted to increase its regulatory power with respect to indoor air quality. (13) That unsuccessful proposal directly addressed the issue of emissions from appliances, (14) but relied on generalized findings contemporary research, identifying specific levels and origins of indoor VOC emissions. (15) That proposal has since become antiquated. Outside of this Note, no academic attempt has been made to effectuate a change within the Clean Air Act that would allow regulations on emissions of electronic appliances in both industrial and nonindustrial settings. Regulation of indoor air quality in nonindustrial settings is particularly important in the twenty-first century, when Americans spend minimal time outdoors, and when the quest for cleaner air could result in healthier, more productive people.


    The definition of "Volatile Organic Compound" varies depending on the context. Apart from explaining what "VOC" means, this Part briefly delves into common VOC sources, their effects on health, and, paramount of all, the progression of research that identifies certain electronic appliances as definitive producers of VOC emissions.

    1. What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?

      Scientifically defined, a VOC is any "chemical compound that contains at least one carbon [atom] and a hydrogen atom in its molecular structure .... [whose] boiling point [] ranges between 50[degrees]C and 260[degrees]C." (16) The legal definition of a VOC narrows that broad classification, albeit slightly. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, a VOC is "any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions." (17)

      The EPA's Indoor Air Quality Guide for Health Professionals provides an even more user-friendly definition of VOCs: chemical compounds that "[a]t room temperature, ... emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids." (18) That guide continues to explain that thousands of products used during "home, office, [and] school ... activities" emit VOCs. (19) Some of the more common sources of VOCs are perfumes, hair sprays, finishes, rug and oven cleaners, paints, lacquers, paint strippers, pesticides, building materials, home furnishings, copiers, printers, correction fluids, glues, and even permanent markers. (20) Clearly, VOCs are everywhere.

      Overexposure to VOCs can result in a variety of symptoms whose spectrum ranges from minor annoyances to lethal reactions. Included in that spectrum are eye, nose, and throat irritations, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and even death. (21) Particularly disturbing is the fact that most VOCs are invisible and odorless, and humans are unable to detect their presence. (22) Consequently, many products that emit VOCs carry precautionary labels and instructions for procedures of safe use. (23)

    2. Consumer Appliances as Sources of VOC Emissions

      Traditionally, outdoor air pollution has been at the epicenter of media-driven environmental disputes, and as a result, the primary focus of environmental research. (24) However, starting in the 1980s, the scientific community began shifting its attention to the air people breathe inside of buildings. (25) Most of those early studies examined Sick Building Syndrome, a phenomena that occurs when the pollution levels inside a building increase to the point that the building itself becomes unhealthy and dangerous to its occupants. (26) Accordingly, early researchers conducted their tests in active office buildings, making it difficult to identify single sources of air pollution with any degree of certainty. (27) For example, in 1991, researchers exploring the onset of Sick Building Syndrome experienced by approximately 2700 workers conducted field tests in 41 office buildings. (28) The primary conclusion of that study was that "photocopying was related to nasal irritation, and video display terminal work [was related] to eye symptoms, headaches, and lethargy." (29)

      More recent studies, conducted in laboratory settings, surpass those generalized findings and identify specific pollutant sources while quantifying the resulting emissions levels. (30) These contemporary studies found that computers, (31) photocopy machines, (32) and printers (33) emit potentially dangerous volumes of VOCs. (34) One of the studies that quantified emission levels from personal computers even correlated exposure to the relevant VOCs with a perception of degraded air quality, negative health effects, and a decrease in work performance. (35)

      Although VO C emissions from electronic equipment are low when compared to other sources of pollutants, (36) such as building materials, they have a magnified impact on human health. (37) Such emissions lead to high VOC concentrations in poorly circulated environments, thereby creating high-risk situations. (38) Accordingly, people's close proximity to office equipment can result in higher personal exposures than would be estimated from pollutant concentrations in well-ventilated buildings. (39) Low levels of VOCs also combine with other commonly present indoor chemicals, triggering the creation of additional pollutants that result in harmful indoor environments. (40)

      To date, no study has examined VOC emissions from televisions, media players, or gaming devices. Similarly, no studies have measured VOC concentrations in residential buildings or quantified the impact that poor indoor air quality has on nonindustrial persons. Despite that lack of scientific patronage, previous studies suggest that those alternate electronic appliances are likely sources of VOC emissions and that high VOC concentrations in residential buildings have a negative impact on building occupants.


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