Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Pretty much every one has heard about VOCs, but what and where are they?

There is no single definition for what constitutes a volatile organic compound (VOC), but it is safe to say that a VOC is a carbon-based organic compound that evaporates (or off-gases) at room temperature.

VOCs are very common and may be man-made, or naturally occurring.

VOCs are a broad group and while some should be avoided, others are not known to cause any issues for most people. Then there are some people who may be allergic or sensitized to some VOCs.

People with respiratory problems such as asthma, young children, older people, and persons with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and symptoms from some VOCs.

Longer term exposure to VOCs may be more likely to trigger and other respiratory symptoms in some people.

VOCs exist outside (particularly in air pollution) and inside.

There are VOCs in aerosols, cleaning products, paints, cosmetics, adhesives, pressed wood products, foam, tobacco smoke, upholstery, carpets, textiles, plastics, detergents (and more).

VOCs can emanate from:

ChemicalUsesComment
Formaldehyde Used in the manufacture of resins and plastics, mostly in the wood-products industry and adhesives. Also tobacco smoke.Exposure to low levels irritates the eyes, nose and throat, and can cause allergies affecting the skin and lungs. Higher exposure can cause significant damage, even death. Possibly also carcinogenic.
Ethylbenzene Primarily used in the production of styrene and synthetic polymers as well as a number of other uses.Respiratory sensitivity.
Benzene Used in manufacturing. Also tobacco smoke.Health concerns, particularly when inhaled
FragrancesFragrances may consist of a complex range of chemicals and are added to a range of products including cosmetics, cleaning products, air fresheners, detergents etc.Fragrances are VOCs and may trigger symptoms in some people with asthma or allergies.
TolueneToluene is a common solvent, used in such things as paints, paint thinners, sealants and adhesives. Also tobacco smoke.Inhaling low levels can cause tiredness, confusion and a range of other symptoms.
XyleneA solvent used to manufacture petrol, chemicals, polyester fibre, and to make dyes, paints and insecticides. Also tobacco smoke.When inhaled or absorbed through the skin symptoms can include headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

You can influence the level of VOCs in your home.

Buy no or low-VOC products and reduce the number of products in your home that give off VOCs.

If you do buy new products that may off-gas, consider allowing them to do so before you take delivery, in a spare room or outside.

Increase ventilation by opening doors and windows or use air purifiers with activated carbon filters or other means to filter VOCs.

Air fresheners are most likely emitters of VOCs (fragrances) that mask unpleasant odours with other odours. It’s probably best to deal with the unpleasant odours using the techniques above if odours trigger your symptoms.

Keep both the temperature and relative humidity lower. Chemicals will off-gas more under warmer conditions with high humidity.

If you can, paint and renovate your home when it is unoccupied or during seasons that will allow for additional ventilation.