Volatile Organic Compounds in Water
Written by William Fryer - MA Oxon
For the past decade or so the food industry has been talking a lot about organic foods. Organic is seen as the holy grail in healthy and safe foods. Organic fertilisers and pesticides are used, very little or no artificial chemicals are used in the production of the food. Supposedly the food tastes better and many argue that it is healthier. Organic is a bit of a “weasel word” though. If you remember your GCSE English you might recall talking about words that give one impression but actually mean something else. They might be words with a lot of emotional attachment to them, they might be words that have had a lot of marketing money behind them, or they might be jargon used to confuse and inflame passion. There has been a lot of campaigning behind the word organic, and for the food industry there has been a lot of marketing. The reality is though that there is an innumerable number of natural and organic products that are extremely dangerous to your health. The food industry might have solid arguments for organic carrots but not everything organic is good for you, some are actually dangerous.
Volatile organic compounds are something that is mostly studied by science. They are organic, but they are also dangerous. They are considered volatile because they turn to their vaporised or gaseous form quite easily. They are regularly checked for in most water plants, and ensuring their levels are low in the water supply is one of the main functions of the chemists at these plants. Sewage is even checked to ensure it does not contaminate other areas of the water supply.
Volatile organic compounds are chemicals that come from things like cleaning solvents and fuel, they are natural, they come from the earth but they are still dangerous. While they are checked for at the water plant and checks are carried out randomly around areas leading from the water plant the sad situation is that the water network does not have complete structural integrity. Every winter new leaks and burst pipes are found, damage is caused by freezing water and supplies are cut. What this means is that fuels and cleaning chemicals containing volatile organic compound can find their way into the water supply. If they are found in large quantities in a water supply it calls for an immediate investigation and can even result in the water supply being cut off until the problem is fixed. A serious incident would create a national scandal.
The problem is that the water supply cannot be checked at every output, there will always be places that go a long time without checks and there are places where the pipes will be particularly badly damaged. This could mean that these compounds do not present a wide threat needing immediate action, instead only affecting a few houses or a small area.
The research on volatile organic compounds has not progressed to knowing exactly what problems they cause. What is known is that build ups of these compounds in your body can cause heart problems, neurological problems and even birth defects in children. If you are worried about this it is worth investigating the methods available to clean the water such as charcoal water cleaners and water distillers.