Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)

Gas, an undermined state of matter that is used in all aspects of daily life, is more important than some may believe. It is in the very air we breathe and is a crucial component of human life.

Unfortunately, another overlooked fact is that there are also harmful gases, called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are released from burning fuel, oil and gas fields, diesel exhausts, and many household items (Town, 2017).

What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

VOCs consist of numerous chemicals, some of which have negative long- or short-term health effects (EPA, 2017). They typically exist in ingredients used in household products such as paint, wax, varnishes, cleaning solvents, cosmetics and disinfectants (EPA, 2017).

These fuels are made up of organic chemicals that release organic compounds when used (Town, 2017). People who use products which contain these chemicals, are exposing themselves to very high pollutant levels which can persist in the air even after the activity is completed.

volatile organic compounds

What are sources of volatile organic compounds?

There are numerous sources of VOCs in household products to look out for. Specifically, paints, paint strippers and other similar solvents have high levels of VOCs (Town, 2017).

While wood preservatives, aerosol sprays and cleaners or disinfectants also emit a large amount of VOCs (Town, 2017).

Even dry-cleaned clothing, building materials, printers and glue can emit harmful chemicals (Town, 2017). It is important to be wary of these compounds in household materials as they can be harmful to your body.

What health effects can VOCs cause?

VOCs can cause various health effects due to their chemical nature. These effects may include short-term eye, throat or nose irritation, headaches, loss of coordination and nausea, while long-term effects include damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system (EPA, 2017).

In serious cases, some chemicals can cause cancer in animals and are suspected to do the same to human bodies (EPA, 2017). The signs and symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs can include headaches, allergic skin reactions, nose and throat discomfort, conjunctival irritation, fatigue, dizziness and nausea (EPA, 2017).

The seriousness of health effects that VOCs can cause, range from highly adverse to none at all, depending on the nature and extent of the exposure. The majority of people who have an immediate reaction to organic exposure will feel dizzy, develop headaches or suffer from hallucinations and memory impairment (Town, 2017).

Currently, there is minimal information on what health effects occur from the level of organic chemicals typically found indoors. VOCs can adversely impact your health and cause lasting damage making it crucial to avoid exposure.

How to prevent exposure to VOCs?

While there is no way of avoiding Volatile Organic Compounds completely, there are numerous preventative steps that can be taken to ensure that exposure is kept to a minimum. Ventilation is critical when using products that emit VOCs.

Ensuring that label precautions are followed and that opened containers of paints and other similar materials are not stored in tight areas is another possible precaution (Hirshberg, 2011).

Potentially hazardous products typically have warnings aimed at reducing the user’s exposure to the chemicals in the product. These chemicals may still leak even from closed containers so materials that are stored should still be kept in well-ventilated areas (Hirshberg, 2011).

When disposing of these materials, towns typically have designated days for the collection of toxic household wastes. Correct disposal of these materials is necessary to prevent the spread of chemicals in the ground, air and water.

Proper disposal of household hazardous wastes, such as products containing VOCs, ensure that waste workers are not exposed to the risk of inhaling toxic substances and reduces the chances of fires or explosions occurring (Hirshberg, 2011). With these small steps, we can help improve the upon the detrimental environmental impact that VOCs have.

Common volatile organic compaounds

Another possible way to reduce exposure is to ensure that exposure to these three carcinogenic chemicals is kept at a minimum: benzene, perchloroethylene and formaldehyde.


Benzene is a known human carcinogen that is found in paint supplies and stored fuels; it is necessary to provide maximum ventilation during usage, and discard paint materials that are not used immediately to reduce benzene exposure (Town, 2017).

Carcinogens promote the formation of cancer cells possibly due to their ability to damage the genome or disrupt the cellular metabolic process (American Cancer Society, 2016). It is helpful to ensure that only limited quantities of paint, kerosene and paint strippers are bought at a time, so that they do not permeate through the house.


Perchloroethylene is a chemical commonly used in dry cleaning materials and is shown to cause cancer in animals (Town, 2017). Recent studies have shown that people breathe in low levels of perchloroethylene when they wear dry-cleaned clothes or are near dry-cleaned goods constantly (EPA, 2017).

It is prudent to minimize exposure to this carcinogen by ensuring that your dry-cleaned goods do not have a strong chemical odor as this indicates that they have not been properly dried and are most likely to emit toxins (EPA, 2017).


Formaldehyde is a strong-smelling, colourless gas that is found in many building materials such as particleboard, glues and plywood (Hirshberg, 2011). It can also be found in certain types of foam insulation and drapes and fabrics.

Inhaling air that contains low levels of this gas can lead to a burning sensation and watery eyes (Hirshberg, 2011). As levels increase within the body, the burning sensation can manifest in the throat, cause nausea and fatigue, and additionally, create difficulty in breathing (Hirshberg, 2011).

High concentrations of formaldehyde can even trigger asthma attacks. After long-term exposure to formaldehyde, studies have shown that nasal cancer has developed in animal studies and it is a “probable” human carcinogen (Hirshberg, 2011).

The key to reducing exposure to this chemical is ventilation and awareness – making sure that the products you are using are formaldehyde or VOC-free. Benzene, perchloroethylene and formaldehyde are only three of the many possible VOCs that can negatively affect the human body, nonetheless, it is necessary to ensure that exposure to these carcinogens is kept to a minimum.

VOCs impact on environment

While VOCs have many adverse effects to the human body, they also negatively impact the environment with their presence. VOCs are the primary precursors to the formation of ground level ozone which is the main ingredient of smog (Climate Change Canada, 2017).

Smog, or air pollution, also has unfavorable effects on human health as well as the environment. Air pollution has been shown to have a significant impact on human health ranging from hospital admissions, emergency room visits and premature deaths (Climate Change Canada, 2017). It is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, lung cancer and even damage to the brain, liver, nerves or kidneys (Climate Change Canada, 2017).

Scientific evidence has shown that ground level ozone emitted from VOCs can have a detrimental impact on the environment leading to reductions in agricultural crop and forest yields, reduced growth of trees, and increased plant susceptibility to disease and pests (Climate Change Canada, 2017). Reducing the amount of VOC emissions in solvents and other commercial products is a small but necessary step to saving the environment and humanity.

How to protect yourself from VOCs?

Volatile Organic Compounds are a serious issue in contemporary society. They contribute to cancer, lung and heart disease, air pollution and damage the environment. While many household products contain VOCs, there are numerous ways to reduce exposure and protect yourself from these harmful toxins.

Ensuring that proper ventilation and air circulation is in place when using products containing VOCs is important. These actions may seem minute and tedious, however, every small contribution can make a difference, and cracking open a window while you spray paint a chair might be the key to saving your life along with the environment.

Published: May 19, 2020 Updated: June 16, 2023

John Ward

Written by:

Account Executive
Mold Busters

Fact checked by:

Mold Busters

Michael Golubev