What is VOC? Facts About Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that are lighter than air at room temperature and are responsible for the characteristic odors of things like paint thinners and perfumes.

VOCs are characterized by high vapor pressure and low water solubility. This means that they are relatively unstable at room temperature, and if left uncontained they will float in the air in a gaseous state. Their low water solubility means that these chemicals do not dissolve very well in water, if at all.

Related: The five states of matter: definition and phases of change

VOCs are commonly used as chemical solvents, or something that dissolves other chemicals, depending on the United States Environmental Protection Agency. They are found in materials such as paints, petroleum fuels, and pharmaceuticals, but VOCs are also produced naturally by animals, plants, and microorganisms. Frequent exposure to VOCs is associated with adverse health effects such as respiratory tract irritation and even cancer.

Where do VOCs come from?

The VOCs released by a rainforest keep the atmosphere above it clean and chemically balanced. Here, Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata Protected Reserve Area within the Peruvian Rainforest in South America. (Image credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Some VOCs are naturally produced by animals, plants and microorganisms, in which case they are more specifically called biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs). The most important BVOCs are isoprene and monoterpenes, researchers reported in 1999 in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry. Both of these BVOCs are produced by plants, according to a 2014 analysis published in the journal Chemistry and physics of the atmosphere.

Plants produce about 90% of all VOCs in the atmosphere, and these chemicals play an important role in the chemical processes that occur in the atmosphere. For example, the VOCs released by a tropical forest keep the atmosphere above it clean and chemically balanced by reacting with harmful substances pollutants in the air, but this does not happen in areas devoid of vegetation, according to a study published in 2008 in the journal Nature.

About 10% of VOCs in the environment are man-made and come from thousands of different materials. Common sources include petroleum fuels, hydraulic fluids, paint thinners and dry cleaning chemicals, depending on the APE. VOCs are also present in many common household and office items, such as building materials, cleaning solutions, cosmetics, permanent markers, adhesives, printers and copiers.

The concentration of VOCs is typically two to five times higher inside homes than outdoors, and it can be up to 10 times higher, according to the EPA. EPA researchers have also found that certain VOCs can linger in indoor air for several hours at levels up to 1,000 times background levels outdoors.

Are VOCs dangerous?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The danger of VOCs to human health varies widely depending on the specific chemical and the level of exposure. Nevertheless, many VOCs can cause health problems, especially if a person is exposed to high or even low levels for a long time.

One of the most well-known harmful VOCs is benzene, a known carcinogen, which is emitted from cigarette smoke, fuels, paints and cars. Sometimes VOCs, like benzene, give off odors, but odor isn’t always a good indicator of the chemical’s potential health risk, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Related: Cancer-causing chemical found in 78 sunscreen products

Another commonly encountered harmful VOC is perchlorethylene, which is commonly used to Dry cleaning. According to APE. Many dry cleaning companies remove as many chemicals from clothes as possible, but if the clean clothes have an odor when picked up, they still contain perchlorethylene. In this case, it’s best to have the cleaners hold the items until they’re done drying and look for a new dry cleaning company.

Symptoms of high, short-term exposure to VOCs include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headachenausea or vomiting, dizziness or worsening asthma symptoms. Exposure to VOCs over many years at high or even low levels can lead to Cancer, liver and kidney damage or the nervous system damage, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Determining which VOC-emitting household products pose the highest health risk is difficult because studies examine the toxicity of single chemicals, but not combinations, as is the case with most household products. The frequency and type of use can impact the level of health risk these chemicals present in a home. Details of the known health effects of specific VOCs can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toxic substances database.

There are no federal or state standards for healthy limits for VOCs in non-industrial areas, so if you suspect VOCs may cause health problems for you or other members of your household, the Department of Minnesota Health recommends removing as many VOC-containing products as possible. of the House. Also, store products in a low-traffic area, such as a shed or garage. Increasing your home’s ventilation and keeping the house cool can also help, as materials release more VOCs in warm temperatures and stagnant air will retain VOCs longer.

Additional Resources

  • The Minnesota Department of Health has an online resource that provides information on household products that contain VOCs and how to reduce these chemicals.
  • It turns out that when you paint your house, VOCs are released. The How Stuff Works site has an explainer on how low VOC paints work.
  • The American Lung Association has a detailed breakdown of indoor VOC sources as well as several other indoor pollutants.


“What are volatile organic compounds? » EPA. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-are-volatile-organic-compounds-vocs

“Global biogenic VOC emissions dataset calculated by the

MEGAN model over the past 30 years”, Atmos. Chem. Phys., K. Sindelarova et. Al, 2014. https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/14/9317/2014/acp-14-9317-2014.pdf

“Volatile Organic Compounds in Your Home”, Minnesota Department of Health. https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/air/toxins/voc.htm

“Sustained Atmospheric Oxidative Capacity of a Rainforest,” Nature, J. Lelieveld, April 10, 2008. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature06870

Originally posted on Live Science.

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