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Indoor Air. 2006 Feb;16(1):7-19.

Organic compounds in office environments - sensory irritation, odor, measurements and the role of reactive chemistry.

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National Institute of Occupational Health, Copenhagen Ø, Denmark.


Sensory irritation and odor effects of organic compounds in indoor environments are reviewed. It is proposed to subdivide volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into four categories: (i) chemically non-reactive, (ii) chemically 'reactive', (iii) biologically reactive (i.e. form chemical bonds to receptor sites in mucous membranes) and (iv) toxic compounds. Chemically non-reactive VOCs are considered non-irritants at typical indoor air levels. However, compounds with low odor thresholds contribute to the overall perception of the indoor air quality. Reported sensory irritation may be the result of odor annoyance. It appears that odor thresholds for many VOCs probably are considerably lower than previously reported. This explains why many building materials persistently are perceived as odorous, although the concentrations of the detected organic compounds are close to or below their reported odor thresholds. Ozone reacts with certain alkenes to form a gas and aerosol phase of oxidation products, some of which are sensory irritants. However, all of the sensory irritating species have not yet been identified and whether the secondary aerosols (ultrafine and fine particles) contribute to sensory irritation requires investigation. Low relative humidity may exacerbate the sensory irritation impact. Practical Implications Certain odors, in addition to odor annoyance, may result in psychological effects and distraction from work. Some building materials continually cause perceivable odors, because the odor thresholds of the emitted compounds are low. Some oxidation products of alkenes (e.g. terpenes) may contribute to eye and airway symptoms under certain conditions and low relative humidity.

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