What Are Volatile Organic Compounds

Even before the brunt of the pandemic, many of us spent most of our time indoors. “Americans spend only 8% of their life outside on average,” Statista reports. Now, thanks to COVID-19, people of all ages are spending even more time inside than ever before.

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If we are not careful, that may be cause for alarm. Why? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveals that certain pollutants are two to five times more concentrated in our homes and in cramped, indoor spaces.

With some knowledge and foresight, it is possible to improve indoor air quality and keep the air that circulates within our homes pure and healthy. That starts with learning about volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

What are VOCs, and why are they harmful? Find out more below.


“Volatile organic compounds are compounds that have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility,” the EPA writes. “Many VOCs are human-made chemicals that are used and produced in the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants.” No matter how concentrated they are, you may or may not smell VOCs. VOCs are present in urban and rural areas, and they can linger in the air hours after the fact.

Some examples of VOCs include formaldehyde, benzene, ethylene glycol, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and methylene chloride.

Where Can You Find Them In Your Home?

Unfortunately, there are dozens of sources of VOCs in your home. The following products and activities all have the potential to expose you and your family to dangerous chemicals:

  • Household products. Cleaning products, disinfectants, air fresheners, bug repellents, pesticides, aerosols, cosmetics, and gasoline may give off unsafe fumes and chemicals for hours after use. For a complete list of household products containing VOCs, consumers can visit the Consumer Product Information Database (CPID) or www.whatsinproducts.com.
  • Building materials. Paints, lacquers, varnishes, paint strippers, caulk, adhesives, composite wood flooring, composite wood products, carpet, upholstery, foam, vinyl flooring, furniture, and furniture parts all contain significant amounts of VOCs.
  • What activities release volatile organic compounds and/or risk exposure? Working in an office or for an office supplies manufacturer can pose a serious risk. Why? You can find VOCs in copiers, printers, inks, toners, correction fluid, copy paper, glue, and permanent markers. Crafting or photography also comes along with some risk, as there are VOCs in glues, adhesives, and photographic solutions. Doing laundry, cooking, burning wood, and smoking are all activities associated with VOC exposure.

An overwhelming 83% of U.S. travelers will choose allergy-friendly accommodations if given the choice. Be just as discerning in your own home. Refer to the list above and use free resources, like the Consumer Product Information Database (CPID), to determine what products to avoid or to use sparingly.

What Are The Dangers Of Exposure?

In the average household, some exposure to VOCs – especially if you are not familiar with them is just about inevitable. The next question on your mind may be, “So what?”

Exposure to VOCs packs significant health risks. Those risks may be relatively minor and short-lived, like fatigue, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, nausea, headaches, disorientation, allergic reaction, and the exacerbation of existing asthma symptoms.

That is not always the case, however. VOCs may come along with lasting consequences to your physical well-being and overall health and, sometimes, those consequences can be fatal. Prolonged, chronic exposure to VOCs may cause liver damage, kidney damage, cancer, and even permanent damage to your central nervous system (CNS).

Do not assume your exposure is negligible. According to the EPA, “During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.” The best protection is abstaining from dangerous activities. Although, there are measures you can take if that is not possible, which will be outlined later.

Besides posing dangers and hazards at an individual level, VOCs pose even greater threats to the population at large. VOCs cause diseases among plants, kill plants at ground-level, increase smog and promote poor air quality, and lead to higher occurrences of acid rain. Smog is not just a nuisance that looks unpleasant and decreases visibility. It also presents health risks of its own. Smog “can worsen existing heart and lung problems or perhaps cause lung cancer with regular long-term exposure,” Health Canada reveals. Likewise, acid rain threatens the livelihood of land-based plants and animals and kills aquatic species. Over time, the sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide in acid rain build up into harmful particles. If you continually inhale these particles, they worsen heart problems and lung problems and might lead to serious conditions, like heart attacks.

How Can You Protect Yourself And Your Home?

Now that you know all about VOCs, it is important to do what you can to limit your exposure and protect your home. What can be done?

To keep your exposure to VOCs to an absolute minimum, take the following precautions:

  • Tackle household projects with all due caution. For example, regular paints and paint strippers have high concentrations of VOCs. Searching for paints without volatile organic compounds is a good start. Besides keeping an eye out for low-VOC paint and zero-VOC paints, look for water-based paints, paints without hazardous fumes, and paints that do not qualify as hazardous waste. This will allow for a smooth, safe application, easy clean-up, and hazard-free disposal.
  • Properly dispose of old and/or used chemicals. Products that contain hazardous chemicals and VOCs often require special disposal. Look up local regulations. These may vary by city or county. Use these guidelines to get rid of chemicals you no longer use.
  • Don’t store excess chemicals in your home. To limit your exposure to VOCs, limit the number of household products or items containing VOCs that enter your home. Buy only what you need, the Minnesota Department of Health cautions.
  • Increase airflow and ventilation. To improve indoor air quality, increase the ventilation inside your home. Keep humidity in your home low, open doors and windows to air out the room when using products that contain VOCs, and use fans to help push the air through your home. If possible, complete projects like laying down new flooring or carpet when your home is unoccupied. For example, if you have a vacation home, call in contractors while you are away or complete the project and stay in your vacation home for a few days to allow the rooms to air out.
  • Store chemicals, household products, and building materials outside of your home. If you have a shed, use it. Store products with VOCs entirely out of your home by taking advantage of any additional storage or shed space.

There are few specifics known about the short-term and long-term exposure risks of VOCs, and there isn’t an established standard for safely handling them. “No federally enforceable standards have been set for VOCs in non-industrial settings,” the EPA reaffirms.

It is widely known that there are considerable risks, and it is best to avoid these risks. Learn where VOCs come from and use that information to take precautions.