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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. 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.

Indoor Sources

Building materials:

  • Paint, paint strippers
  • Varnishes and finishes
  • Caulks and sealants
  • Adhesives
  • Flooring, carpet, pressed wood products

Home & personal care products:

  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Furniture
  • Pesticides
  • Air fresheners
  • Cosmetics and deodorants
  • Fuel oil, gasoline

Activities:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Dry-cleaned clothing
  • Arts and crafts products: glues, permanent markers, etc.
  • Wood burning stoves
  • Office printers and copiers

Outdoor Sources

  • Gasoline
  • Diesel emissions
  • Wood burning
  • Oil and gas extraction and processing
  • 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 leftover or unused products safely.
  • Always follow manufacturers' directions when using these products.
  • Don't smoke and keep all buildings smokefree. Tobacco smoke contains VOCs among other carcinogens.

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. Increasing the amount of fresh air in your home will help reduce the concentration of VOCs indoors.
  • 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.


    Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed December 7, 2017.

    Page Last Updated: February 27, 2018

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