Distribution and Fate of Volatile Organic Contaminants (VOCs)

Federico Sinche, Loyola University Chicago

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Volatile organic contaminants (VOCs) are organic compounds generated from different industrial processes around the world. VOCs are ubiquitous contaminants, and some can be genotoxic, mutagenic and act as endocrine disruptors, thus representing a risk to ecosystems and human health. High levels of VOCs have been reported in industrialized countries such as the US. In this module, students will explore how the distribution of VOCs has changed over time. Students will then compare types and concentrations of VOCs among the US states in the context of geography, urbanization, industrialization, and fossil emissions as contributing factors of air pollution. Project EDDIE modules are designed with an A-B-C structure to make them flexible and adaptable to develop quantitative skills to a range of student levels and academic curricula.

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Learning Goals

  • To analyze environmental data of VOCs from different geographic locations across the US states.
  • To evaluate changes in the VOC levels based on their temporal distribution.
  • To explain the types and frequency of occurrence of VOCs across the US states using histograms.   
  • To discuss the influence of contributing factors in the fate of VOCs across different geographic locations in the US states. 
  • To apply basic data analyses and plotting in Excel. 

Context for Use

This module was piloted in the "Chemistry of the Environment" lab, which is an introductory course for science majors. The students in this lab were familiar with Excel and had some previous experience plotting small datasets using various types of graphs. The students were a mix of sophomore and seniors. The module was taught in person and had a duration of 3 hours in total, in which students completed their "Student Sheet" documents using the teaching materials. The first 20 minutes of the lab were used by the instructor to give the presentation. All students completed Activities A and B prior to advancing to Activity C.

This module can be used as an introductory course for non and environmental science majors. Module materials can be tailored to provide context for environmental chemistry to science major students. Furthermore, the module can be taught entirely online in places where in-person classes are not available.

How Instructors Have Used This Module

Using Project EDDIE modules in Chemistry of the Environment
Federico Sinche, Loyola University Chicago
One of today's education challenges is to provide students with the opportunity to develop quantitative skills related and applied to a STEM education. The module's objectives are to support student's acquisition of data inquiry using environmental relevant datasets and common plotting platform for data interpretation.

Description and Teaching Materials

The exploration and inquiry of VOCs have their environmental relevance as these "Air Pollutants" have been associated with adverse health outcomes across the US states. Thereby, the teaching materials of this module have been designed to engage students in exploring and apply environmental data analysis to identify and provide evidence on how levels of VOCs have changed in both temporal and geographic scales across the US states.

The following teaching materials include answer key document, files, links, and datasets for step-by-step description for carrying out this module. A student handout, describing Activities A, B, and C, and an instructor's manual with an answer key are listed in the "Teaching Materials" section below.

Quick overview of the activities in this module

In this module, students will address the following overall question: what have been the distribution and fate of types and levels of VOCs according to temporal and geographic data reported across the US states? The following activities will guide students throughout the module.

  • Activity A: What is the range and distribution of the atmospheric levels of VOCs in Illinois in 2010?
  • Activity B: How has the range and distribution of the atmospheric levels of three VOCs from 2010 to 2020 in Illinois? 
  • Activity C: What is the range and distribution of the atmospheric levels of VOCs in the state of your interest? How has the range and distribution of the atmospheric levels of the selected VOCs changed from the years chosen? 

Workflow of this module:

  1. Assign pre-readings from module. 
  2. Give students their handout and student answer sheet prior to the module session. 
  3. Instructor gives brief PowerPoint presentation with background information on VOCs. A Q/A section can be included into the presentation to encourage student participation.
  4. Students can then start working on the module activities.
  5. Activity C can be assigned as homework. 

Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

Use the "Illinois_VOCs_2010" and "Illinois_VOCs_2020" files for this module. These files contain the variables needed for these module activities.

If time is limited in class, Activity C can be assigned as homework.

Students can start with the following pre-reading materials and generating key take-away statements from the following sources: "Clean Air Act Requirements and History," "What are Hazardous Air Pollutants?"; "188 toxic air pollutants"; "Health and Environmental Effects of Hazardous Air Pollutants, and Health and Ecological Effects" and "Developing Clean Air Programs Through Dialogue."

EDDIE modules and vignettes that can be used to support the present module include "EDDIE Module Excel Tutorial," "M3(Mean, Median, Mode)" and "Normal Distribution." The supporting material can be found at the EDDIE website.


In Activity A, student will determine the distribution of selected VOC levels in the US states by analyzing and plotting historical datasets on histograms. Students will use the "Illinois_VOCs_2010" for this activity.

In Activity B, students will graph histograms and explore changes in the levels of selected VOCs and describe differences in distributions between historical and recent datasets. Students will use the "Illinois_VOCs_2020" for this activity.

In Activity C, students will expand the analysis and interpretation of the distribution and levels of VOCs to other US states and identify changes or trends in the fate and health impacts of VOCs in the context of contributing air-pollution factors such as geography, urbanization, and fossil emissions. Students will use the "metadata_US_states_VOCs_2010" and "metadata_US_states_VOCs_2020" for this activity.

References and Resources

Reading of background information on atmospheric pollution and the environmental and health risks of exposure to VOCs is encouraged using the resources below:

  1. Clean Air Act Requirements and History. https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/clean-air-act-requirements-and-history
  2. What are Hazardous Air Pollutants? and "188 toxic air pollutants".https://www.epa.gov/haps/what-are-hazardous-air-pollutants
  3. Health and Environmental Effects of Hazardous Air Pollutants, and Health and Ecological Effects resources.https://www.epa.gov/haps/health-and-environmental-effects-hazardous-air-pollutants
  4. Developing Clean Air Programs Through Dialogue (Public Participation).https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/developing-clean-air-programs-through-dialogue

Air pollution and VOCs

US EPA. Retrieved on Feb-2022. Technical Air Pollution Resources. https://www.epa.gov/technical-air-pollution-resources

US CDC. Retrieved on Jan-2022. Air Pollutants.https://www.cdc.gov/air/pollutants.htm

Health effects associated with VOCs

ASTDR. Minimal risk levels (MRLs) for hazardous substances. MRLs in draft Toxicological profiles are provisional (MRL List – April 2022). https://wwwn.cdc.gov/TSP/MRLS/mrlslisting.aspx

Montero-Montoya, R., López-Vargas, R., and Arellano-Aguilar, O. (2018). Volatile organic compounds in air: sources, distribution, exposure and associated illnesses in children. Annals of global health, 84(2), 225.

Loh, M. M., Levy, J. I., Spengler, J. D.,  Houseman, E. A., and Bennett, D. H. (2007), Ranking Cancer Risks of Organic Hazardous Air Pollutants in the United States. Environmental Health Perspectives 115:8 CID: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.9884

Air quality monitoring programs 

US EPA. Retrieved on Feb-2022. Integrated Risk Information System. https://www.epa.gov/iris

US EPA. Retrieved on Jan-2022. Air Data: Air Quality Data Collected at Outdoor Monitors Across the US. https://www.epa.gov/outdoor-air-quality-data

Air pollution and regulation 

US EPA. Retrieved on Jan-2022. National Air Toxics Assessment. https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment

US EPA. Retrieved on Jan-2022. Criteria Air Pollutants. https://www.epa.gov/criteria-air-pollutants

US EPA. Retrieved on May-2022. Consumer Products: National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standards. https://www.epa.gov/stationary-sources-air-pollution/consumer-products-national-volatile-organic-compound-emission

US EPA. Retrieved on May-2022. Urban Air Toxic Pollutants. https://www.epa.gov/urban-air-toxics/urban-air-toxic-pollutants

US EPA. Retrieved on May-2022. Areas Sources of Urban Air Toxics. https://www.epa.gov/urban-air-toxics/area-sources-urban-air-toxics

Emissions and sources of VOCs

US EPA. Technology Transfer Network. Air Toxics Web Site. https://www3.epa.gov/ttn/atw/

US EPA. Our Nation's Air. Trend through 2021. https://gispub.epa.gov/air/trendsreport/2022/#home

US EPA. Retrieved on May-2022. Reports and Summaries. https://www.epa.gov/air-emissions-inventories/reports-and-summaries

Suzuki, N., Nakaoka, H., Hanazato, M., Nakayama, Y., Takaya, K., & Mori, C. (2019). Emission rates of substances from low-volatile-organic-compound paints. International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 16(8), 4543-4550.

Mahbub, P., Goonetilleke, A., & Ayoko, G. A. (2011). Prediction model of the buildup of volatile organic compounds on urban roads. Environmental science & technology, 45(10), 4453-4459.

Piccot, S. D., Watson, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (1992). A global inventory of volatile organic compound emissions from anthropogenic sources. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 97(D9), 9897-9912.

Mohamed, M. F., Kang, D., & Aneja, V. P. (2002). Volatile organic compounds in some urban locations in United States. Chemosphere, 47(8), 863-882.