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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

What are they?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are compounds that easily become vapors or gases. 

VOCs are released from burning fuel such as gasoline, wood, coal, or natural gas. They are also released from many consumer products:

  • Cigarettes
  • Solvents
  • Paints and thinners
  • Adhesives
  • Hobby and craft supplies
  • Dry cleaning fluids
  • Glues
  • Wood preservatives
  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Moth repellants
  • Air fresheners
  • Building materials and furnishings
  • Copy machines and printers
  • Pesticides

When VOCs combine with nitrogen oxides in the air, they form smog.

See also: Dry Cleaning Gas Station Homes Vehicles and Engines Fuel Industry Air Pollution

Where are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) found?

  • Consumer products – household, building, and hobby products; cigarettes
  • Air – indoors and outdoors: vehicle exhaust, cigarette and secondhand smoke, and emissions from fuels and VOC products

How can I be exposed to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) commonly enter(s) the body through:

Inhalation (breathing)
  • Breathing vehicle exhaust, fuel emissions, releases from products and processes that contain VOCs, and cigarette and secondhand smoke
Skin contact
  • Touching products that contain and release VOCs

What happens when I am exposed to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Short-term exposure to various VOCs may cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Visual disorders
  • Memory problems

Long-term exposure to various VOCs may cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system
  • Cancer

Who is at risk for exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

  • Consumers
    • Many consumer, building, and craft products release VOCs.
  • Cigarette smokers
    • Cigarette and secondhand smoke contain VOCs.
  • Vulnerable populations
    • People with asthma, young children, and the elderly may be more susceptible to the effects of VOCs.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to VOCs, contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you live in an area with a smog problem?
  • Do you use cleaning, painting, or hobby supplies that contain VOCs?
  • Do you dry clean your clothes or use home dry-cleaning products?
  • Do you, or does anyone in your household, smoke tobacco products?
  • Do you use well water?
  • Remove or reduce the number of products in your home that release VOCs.
  • Use proper ventilation when you use VOC-containing products.
  • Store unused chemicals in a garage or shed.
  • Dispose of unused chemicals properly.
  • Use VOC-containing products according to manufacturer’s directions.
  • Use low-VOC paints and furnishings when available.
  • Keep windows and doors open to allow new furnishings to off-gas. Composite wood items contain more VOCs than solid wood items.
  • Air your clothes out when bringing them back from the dry cleaners. Take clothes out of the plastic bag, and open the windows or hang them outside.
  • If you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Routinely test your well water for VOCs. 
  • If your well water has high levels of VOCs, contact your local or state health agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for information on how to reduce your exposure.
  • If your well water contains VOC levels above EPA’s drinking water advisory levels, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking or install an activated carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis system.
  • Keep VOC products out of the reach of children.
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