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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

What are VOCs?

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are harmful chemicals emitted by many of the products and materials we have in our homes. VOCs are chemicals that are dispersed as gases from solids or liquids that evaporate into the air at room temperature. Concentrations of these chemicals can be up to 100 times higher indoors than outdoors. Thousands of products emit these gases while in use or even when stored. Many of these products are used or being exposed on a daily basis. It is also known that most VOCs cannot be detected by smell. These products include:

  • Paints & varnishes
  • Moth balls
  • Solvents
  • Building materials
  • Pesticides
  • Gasoline
  • Fuel oil
  • Cooking oils, etc.
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Carpeting
  • Wallpaper
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Dry-cleaning
  • Candles
  • Growing mold
  • Copiers & printers
  • Upholstery & fabrics
  • Glues & adhesives
  • Permanent markers
  • Craft materials
  • Cosmetics
  • Hair care products
  • Air fresheners
  • Disinfectants
  • Furniture (pressed wood)
  • Vehicle exhaust
  • Tobacco smoke 
  • Pesticides
  • Building Materials
  • Adhesives

Health Effects

How Can VOCs Be Harmful and Dangerous? While all VOCs have the potential to be harmful, there are a few common VOCs that can be particularly dangerous, and are emitted from a number of products in our homes. These common VOCs are Formaldehyde, benzene, and phenol. These are also classified as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For a complete list of all 188 HAPs, click here to visit the EPA website. The EPA's Office of Research and Development's 1985 study found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas.

The medical community has only recently begun studying the effects of VOC exposure in occupational settings and exposure. Medical data has found an increased risk of cancer, liver damage, kidney damage and central nervous system damage. Unfortunately non-occupational exposure rates and the effect on the human body remains largely unstudied. 

The presence of chemicals in your home can cause a wide range of problems, ranging from an unpleasant odor to physical symptoms (burning and irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat; headaches; nausea, nervous system effects; severe illness; etc.). In some cases, these conditions may make the home unlivable. Anyone with respiratory issues like asthma and allergies, as well as children, the elderly, and pregnant women are more susceptible to poor indoor air quality than healthy individuals. However, at elevated volatile organic compound levels even healthy individuals are likely to experience ill effects.

Inspection & Testing

VOC Testing - Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a form of classifying thousands of different types of organic gases emitted from several common materials. Testing for VOCs in a buildings' interior will determine if there are excessive levels of these gases being emitted.

VOCs are analyzed by using the USEPA TO-15 analysis method, Compendium Method TO-15, "Determination of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in Air". Collected in specially-prepared canisters and analyzed by Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS), January 1999, (EPA/625/R-96/010b).

TO-15 method is capable of detecting parts per trillion of certain volatile organic compounds. The TO-15 instrument also makes it possible to look at ‘unknown compounds’ and make tentative identifications. It is this versatility that makes TO-15 one of the most powerful tools that an investigator can use for any initial evaluation.

I have VOCs, what can I do next?
Many of these chemical compounds are commonly found in homes. However, locating and removing the source of the chemical compound is the most effective way to reduce the contribution of that chemical compound to the total volatile organic compound, which ultimately leads to improved indoor air quality. If removing the source is not possible, try to contain it in some way (e.g., placing the source in an air-tight container when not in use). In addition, most homes have inadequate ventilation so increasing the amount of outside air or filtering or purifying re-circulated inside air will almost always reduce the total volatile organic compound levels. However, since VOCs continue to off-gas even when the sources are stored, ventilation and air-purification methods will need to be employed continuously in order to keep the VOC levels low.

Regulations & Resources

Learn More About VOCs

Please visit the following website links for further information regarding VOCs.

Quick Facts

  • EPA's Office of Research and Development's 1985 study found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas.
  • Are some people at greater risk from VOC exposure than others? Persons with respiratory problems such as asthma, young children, elderly, and persons with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and illness from VOCs.
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