Article| Volume 46, ISSUE 1, P54-68, January 2023

Modelling the equilibrium partitioning of low concentrations of airborne volatile organic compounds in human IVF laboratories


      Research question

      Can volatile organic compounds (VOC) be modelled in an IVF clinical setting?


      The study performed equilibrium modelling of low concentrations of airborne VOC partitioning from the air phase into the oil cover layer into the water-based culture media and into/onto the embryo (air–oil–water–embryo). The air-phase VOC were modelled based on reported VOC concentrations found in modern assisted reproductive technology (ART) suites, older IVF clinics, and hospitals, as well as at 10 parts per billion (ppb) and 100 ppb for all compounds. The modelling was performed with 23 documented healthcare-specific VOC.


      Based on the partitioning model, seven compounds (acrolein, formaldehyde, phenol, toluene, acetaldehyde, ethanol and isopropanol) should be of great concern to the embryologist and clinician. Acrolein, formaldehyde, phenol, toluene and acetaldehyde are the VOC with the most potent cytotoxic factor and the highest toxic VOC concentration in media. In addition, ethanol and isopropanol are routinely found in the greatest air-phase concentrations and modelled to have the highest water-based culture concentrations.


      The results of the equilibrium partitioning modelling of VOC provides a fundamental understanding of how airborne VOC partition from the air phase and negatively influence human IVF outcomes. The results presented here are based on the theoretical model and the values presented have not yet been measured in a laboratory or clinical setting. High air-phase concentrations and toxic concentrations of VOC in culture media are likely indicators of poor clinical outcomes. Based on this model, improved air quality in IVF laboratories reduces the chemical burden imparted on embryos, which supports findings of improved IVF outcomes with reduced air-phase VOC concentrations.


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      John Fox, PhD, PE, is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA. John received his BS in civil engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and earned his MS and PhD in environmental engineering from the Pennsylvania State University.
      Key message
      Equilibrium partitioning modelling of volatile organic compounds (VOC) provides fundamental understanding of how airborne VOC partition from the air phase and negatively influence human IVF outcomes. Based on the partitioning model, seven compounds (acrolein, formaldehyde, phenol, toluene, acetaldehyde, ethanol and isopropanol) should be of great concern to the embryologist and clinician.