Volatile Organic Compounds | American Lung Association

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes.  Some are harmful by themselves, including some that cause cancer. In addition, they can react with other gases and form other air pollutants after they are in the air.

Where VOCs come from

VOCs can be found in the air indoors and outdoors.

Indoor sources include many common household and office products:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Paint, paint remover
  • Cleaning products, varnishes, wax  
  • Pesticides
  • Air fresheners
  • Personal care products such as cosmetics
  • Hobby products such as glue
  • Office equipment including printers and copiers
  • Wood burning stoves
  • Fuel oil, gasoline
  • Furniture or building products such as flooring, carpet, pressed wood products
  • Car exhaust in an attached garage

Some of these sources continue to produce VOCs when they are stored or transported. Some of the more familiar VOCs include benzene, formaldehyde and toluene.

Outdoor sources include gasoline and diesel emissions, wood burning, oil and gas extraction and processing, and industrial emissions.

VOCs can harm health

Breathing VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, can cause difficulty breathing and nausea, and can damage the central nervous system as well as other organs.  Some VOCs can cause cancer.  Not all VOCs have all these health effects, though many have several.

Details on specific health effects of each specific VOC can be found in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Toxic Substances Portal.

Outdoors, VOCS can cause similar health effects, but also can react with nitrogen oxides to produce ozone pollution, the nation's most widespread outdoor air pollutant.

Protecting yourself from VOCs

Avoid or limit use of products with high VOCs

  • Use products that are low in VOCs, including some sources like paints and building supplies. Look for "Low VOCs" information on the label.
  • Use a different approach that reduces the need for products that contain VOCs. For example, integrated pest management can help eliminate or greatly reduce the use of pesticides.
  • Buy only as much as you need for the project. Dispose of any left over or unused products safely.
  • Always follow manufacturers' directions when using these products.

Add ventilation when you use products with VOCs indoors

  • Open windows and add a fan to pull the indoor air outside while you're using products with high VOCs.
  • Let new carpet or new building products air outside to release VOCs before installing them.
  • Don't store products with VOCs indoors, including in garages connected to the building.
  • Make sure your office or school ventilation systems are working effectively to reduce VOCs produced by printers or copiers.
  • Get more information about ventilation.

Don't smoke and keep all buildings smokefree. Tobacco smoke contains VOCs among other carcinogens.

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