Saturday, September 5, 2009

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH: The Use of Organic Solvents in Relation to the Clean Air Act

By Joe Mancuso

Organic solvents, or industrial solvents containing carbon, are used every day in thousands of industries. Some of the most familiar common organic solvents are gasoline, ethanol, and acetone. Solvents are essential to many industries because of their wide range of uses. A variety of products ranging from cosmetics to paint thinners may contain solvents.

The useful properties of solvents can be explained by the discoveries of Dutch scientist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, who discovered the attractive and repulsive forces between similar molecules and even individual components of a single molecule. Van der Waal's force describes how molecular substances are often soluble in organic solvents. The solute, the matter which is to be dissolved, and the solvent's molecules are attracted to each other because of their molecular similarity. This proves organic solvents to be useful as cleaning agents or products like acetone, which are used for their abilities to dissolve matter easily.

Unfortunately, many studies have uncovered the detrimental effects of the use of these organic solvents. The overuse of these products has led to the deterioration of the Earth's environment and the weakening of the beneficial stratospheric ozone layer, which absorbs UV light and filters out unhealthy ultraviolet radiation.

Volatile organic compounds are released into our atmosphere via emissions from solvents and other sources. These volatile organic compounds directly affect our tropospheric ozone layer, more commonly known as ground-level ozone, and are a main component of smog. The buildup of volatile organic compounds in the tropospheric ozone layer can alter the equilibrium between ozone and oxides of nitrogen (or NOx), which causes a snowball effect of the accumulation of additional smog.

Because of the harmful effects of the misuse of solvents, policies have been put in place to regulate the use and disposal of these potentially hazardous substances. The Clean Air Act programs have been designed to address concerns of the effects of volatile organic compounds, and in turn has significantly impacted those in industries which regularly use solvents.

Areas of the United States that do not currently meet volatile organic compound emissions (most commonly referred to as VOC emissions) are required to reduce their output of VOCs at a rate of 3% each year until they meet emissions standards. All forms of man made VOC emissions, including solvents, are regulated.

The majority of industrial solvent users and producers must get federal permits in order to comply with these standards. Details about the use of these products are required to be reported, and significant records of industrial solvent usage must be kept as well. In order to reduce VOC emissions, the percentage of VOCs is regulated in any products or formulations. VOCs which are considered reactive are required to be regulated, however any VOCs considered negligibly reactive are not regulated. Some solvents fall under the category of hazardous air pollutants as well. Regulations have been put into place to monitor and reduce air pollution on an industry-by-industry basis. Organic solvents may still be used, but now that their use is heavily regulated companies must learn to limit their usage or face federal fines.

Organic solvents and their uses are varied. Since the introduction of the Clean Air Act programs, the use of these solvents is under scrutiny for its hazards both to human health and the environment. For more information on industrial organic solvents, contact

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