Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) enter the air from gasoline, pesticides, tobacco smoke, and thousands of other products and processes. They can increase the risk of airway problems and other health issues.

Whether alone or in combination with other gases, VOCs can lead to problems with the lungs, central nervous system (CNS), kidneys, and liver.

The short-term health effects of VOCs include airway irritation. In the long term, exposure to VOCs may lead to cancer.

Here, learn more about VOCs, where they occur, and how they might affect a person’s health. Also, get some tips on how to avoid the unwanted effects of VOCs.

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VOCs are gases that some solid and liquid substances emit into the air. They are essential for producing many everyday materials, but research shows they can also affect the health of individuals and the environment.

In terms of their properties, VOCs:

  • easily turn into vapor
  • do not break down easily
  • can stay in the air for a long time and travel long distances
  • can come from natural events, such as wildfires, or from human-made processes, such as manufacturing
  • can be in the air, food, or water, including swimming and bathing water

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOC levels are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, and thousands of products emit them.

Here are just a few of the thousands of VOCs that exist.

Chemical nameCommonly present inClass
propanecooking and heating gasVVOC
butanecooking and heating gasVVOC
methyl chloride (chloromethane)refrigerants, herbicides, polystyrene foam productionVVOC
formaldehyderesins, glues, varnishes, coatings for clothing, paper, insulating materials, laminate flooring, plywood and other pressed woodsVOC
toluenepaint thinners and gluesVOC
acetonenail polish remover, household solvents, a component in a wide range of materialsVOC
isopropyl alcoholcosmetics, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, antifreeze, soaps, cleaners, disinfectantsVOC
hexanalfavoring in the food industry, fragrance in perfumes, and used for making plastics, rubber, and insecticidesVOC
trichlorethyleneindustrial solvents — may contaminate groundwater and drinking waterSVOC
benzyl alcoholperfumes, flavorings, cosmetics, clothes dye, inks, photographic developingSVOC
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)fire retardantsSVOC

Types of VOC

Scientists classify VOCs according to their properties and possible effects. For instance, cVOCs increase the risk of cancer, and mVOCs are microbial, possibly stemming from microbes or fungal spores.

People can also categorize VOCs by their boiling point. They may be:

  • very volatile organic compounds (VVOCs), with a boiling point range of up to 100°C
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs), with a boiling point between 240°C and 400°C

According to the EPA, some VOCs can increase the risk of:

  • eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • problems with the nervous system
  • liver and kidney damage
  • cancer in animals and possibly in humans

While some VOCs can have significant health effects, others have no known toxic effects. However, it is worth noting that scientists have not yet researched many household VOCs.

The effects also depend on the concentration of the substance and how long a person remains exposed to it.

How do VOCs and other types of pollution affect health?

Find out more about pollution and various health issues.

Some symptoms a person may experience on exposure to VOCs include:

  • irritation or discomfort in the eyes, nose, and throat
  • allergic skin reactions
  • breathing difficulty, known as dyspnea
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • nosebleeds
  • loss of coordination
  • vision changes
  • confusion and difficulty remembering things
  • low levels of cholinesterase, which is essential for the effective functioning of the CNS
  • changes in heart rhythm and other cardiac problems
  • paralysis
  • seizures

Get some tips on avoiding lung irritation due to VOCs and other irritants.

In addition to health issues, VOCs can also affect the environment by:

  • contributing to air pollution and particles in the air
  • increasing the risk of climate change by absorbing infrared radiation from the earth’s surface
  • polluting oceans, reservoirs, and other water bodies
  • producing unpleasant odors

Here are some common household sources of VOCs:

  • carpeting, laminate, and other flooring
  • solvents and adhesives
  • paints and varnishes
  • cleaners and disinfectants
  • furniture
  • pesticides
  • air fresheners
  • cosmetics
  • deodorants
  • fuels and oils
  • tobacco smoke and e-cigarettes
  • dry cleaned products
  • permanent markers

Outside the home, VOCs may also stem from:

  • office copiers and printers
  • diesel, gasoline, and biofuel emissions
  • woodsmoke
  • oil and gas processing
  • other industrial processes
  • building and painting materials
  • pharmaceutical processes
  • incinerating waste
  • wildfires

How do everyday chemicals contribute to mortality from air pollution?

Here are some tips for reducing exposure to VOCs:

  • Ventilate rooms where high levels of VOCs may be present, for instance, in paint, solvent products, printers, and copiers.
  • Leave new carpets and other products outside to air before installing.
  • Store paints and other products outside the home, if possible.
  • Avoid smoking, especially indoors.
  • Always follow the safety instructions when using products that produce VOCs.
  • Look for “low VOCs” on product labels.
  • Choose methods of pest control and household cleaning that are less likely to produce VOCs.

Amid concerns about the effects of VOCs on human and environmental well-being, scientists are looking for ways to mitigate the unwanted effects of VOCs. The approaches include:

  • finding alternatives to VOCs
  • developing materials and processes that can reduce the presence of VOCs, for instance, by absorbing them or changing their structure
  • monitoring and regulating their use by organizations such as the EPA
  • reducing or banning the use of certain substances

See our green cleaning products guide to help avoid VOCs in the home.

Here are some answers to questions people often ask about VOCs.

What level of VOCs is dangerous?

There is no single measure, as any toxic effects will depend on the type of VOC, the concentration, and the length of exposure. Any safety measurements will depend on the individual substance and the context in which it occurs.

Do VOCs stay in the body?

VOCs may not stay in the body forever, but they can build up to the point that they become harmful.

A report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states that VOCs do not stay in the body for a long time, but if a person has repeated exposure to them, they may accumulate to high enough levels to cause health problems.

Are dioxins the same as VOCs?

Dioxins are another hazardous type of pollution, but they are different from VOCs. They are persistent organic pollutants.

Learn more about dioxins.

VOCs are present in many products and processes ranging from building materials to cosmetics.

However, depending on the individual substance, exposure to VOCs can affect a person’s health through airway irritation, organ damage, CNS disturbances, and possibly cancer. VOCs also contribute to environmental pollution and climate change.

Ways of reducing exposure to VOCs include ensuring adequate ventilation in rooms, seeking out alternative products, and following any safety instructions on product labels.