Understanding VOCs

Posted April 8th, 2022

VOCs For Non-Scientists: Understanding, Detecting, Removing

Note: Below is a straightforward explanation of the highly problematic group of water contaminants known as VOCs. The article is from the Calgon Carbon Corporation, a leading supplier of water treatment media. We’ve edited a bit for clarity.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a large class of substances that may be found in various water sources. What follows is a straightforward guide to understanding VOCs, specifically, what qualifies a compound as a VOC, how to detect them, and how to treat and remove them from the water system.

As the name implies, a VOC is defined primarily by two things. The first is that the chemical is volatile, which means that it easily changes state from liquid to gas with a relatively small amount of energy. Most VOCs have a comparatively low molecular weight, which is one of the reasons for this volatility. The other key defining factor is that it is organic, meaning the molecule is composed primarily of carbon atoms.

Most VOCs are manmade products, although a few, such as acetone, are also naturally occurring.  Nearly all VOCs end up in the water supply via industrial processes, chemical spills, or other human activity.  Half come from industrial processes, 45% from motor vehicles, and 5% from consumer solvents.

Federally regulated VOCs are listed under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Of course, each individual state may have its own list of regulated VOCs beyond those in the SDWA.

For regulated VOCs, the EPA and state agencies set two levels for each chemical: a maximum contaminant level (MCL) and a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG). The MCL is the largest permissible concentration of the chemical in water, while the MCLG is the concentration at which there is no known or expected health risk.

VOC Types And Properties

Not all VOCs behave the same. There are three sub-classifications of VOCs based on their boiling points:

  1. VVOCs (very volatile organic compounds). With boiling points of <0°C to 50-100°C, many of these exist solely in a gaseous state. Examples include butane, propane, and trichloromethane.
  2. VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Although the term VOC is often used to describe chemicals from all three subcategories, technically it applies only to those with boiling points in the 50-100°C to 240-260°C range. Some examples are ethanol, acetone, and vinyl chloride.
  3. SVOCs (semi-volatile organic compounds). The least volatile subclass is defined by boiling points from 240-260°C to 380-400°C.  Phthalates, many pesticides (including DDT), and nitrobenzene are some such examples.

VOCs can be further categorized as either hydrophobic (repel water) or hydrophilic (attract water). Hydrophobic VOCs (e.g., benzene) usually have smaller molecular weights and do not dissolve easily in water, which makes them relatively easier to move to a gaseous state. By contrast, hydrophilic VOCs (e.g., acetone) tend to have higher molecular weights and are more easily dissolved in water, which makes them relatively harder to move into a gaseous state.

Removing VOCs From Water

There are two primary methods for removing VOCs from source water.

Air Stripping. The process of forcing air through water works well on VOCs with lower boiling points (especially VVOCs) and/or those that are hydrophobic. This includes chemicals such as vinyl chloride, methyl chloride, chlorofluorocarbons, and methane.

Activated Carbon. Higher-molecular-weight VOCs won’t be as responsive to air stripping. For these chemicals, a granular activated carbon (GAC) filter is a more effective solution. The activated carbon can adsorb most VOCs, including those that are more difficult to remove via air stripping. Because VOCs diffuse quickly through the carbon bed, however, it is important to ensure the carbon has a high iodine number. Usually, about 1,000 to 1,100 is ideal to reduce the number of changeouts.

Establishing A Buffer For VOCs

It’s rare for water treatment plants to discover new VOCs in their source water. Most water systems are well established, and the challenge is less about tackling a previously unencountered chemistry but rather struggling to meet established and new MCLs.

That said, chemical spills can happen anywhere. For example, a city that pulls from a riverway with heavy boat traffic is always susceptible to some type of spill, as anything that is on a boat can end up in the water. Even chemical spills on land, such as a tipped gas tanker, can result in VOCs in groundwater. A GAC system that is in place for everyday VOCs will act as a buffer, ready to adsorb new contaminants should they enter the source water.

Source: Calgon Carbon Corporation

Pure Water Gazette Fair Use Statement

Pure Water Gazette Afternote

A much more complete listing of commonly encountered VOCs can be found on the Pure Water Occasional website.  Calgon Corporation’s article is intended mainly for water treatment plant operators. Treatment options for residential users do not include air stripping. For residential use,  activated carbon is by far the best protection. Coconut shell carbon is generally regarded as the treatment of choice for VOCs and this can be in the form of carbon beds (backwashing whole house filters), cartridge style whole house or drinking water filters filters, or the carbon filters that are part of undersink reverse osmosis units. The main thing to know about VOC protection with carbon filters is that VOCs are much more difficult to remove than chlorine. For VOC removal filters need a slower flow rate to allow more residence time and more frequent replacement.  The need for frequent replacement and slower flow rates is evident in the following from the spec sheet of the CTO Plus coconut shell carbon block.  Capacity in gallons:

  • Chlorine: 240,000 @ 7 gpm,
  • Chloramine: 12,000 @ 3 gpm,
  • PFAS: 21,000 @ 3 gpm,
  • VOC: 4,500 @ 2 gpm