Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands.

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study” found levels of common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. TEAM studies indicated that while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels. Elevated VOC concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is complete and use has stopped.

Common Sources

  • cleaners and disinfectants
  • wall coverings
  • furniture and furnishings
  • upholstery, fabric materials
  • moth repellents
  • air fresheners, and other scented products (candles)
  • cosmetics, perfumes, deodorants
  • paints, paint strippers, varnishes, finishes, and stains
  • adhesives, caulks, sealants, and coatings
  • vinyl flooring, carpet, pressed wood products
  • plumbing adhesives and sealants
  • tobacco smoke
  • dry-cleaned clothing
  • arts and crafts products – glues, permanent markers, photographic solutions, etc.
  • wood burning stoves
  • office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper
  • stored fuel oil, gasoline for lawn care or recreational equipment
  • carrier solvents for pesticide/insecticide applications
  • vehicle exhaust
  • wood burning
  • oil and gas extraction and processing industrial emissions
  • Freons from air conditioner or refrigeration appliances

No federally enforceable standards have been set for VOCs in non-industrial settings (aka your house).

As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.

There are numerous chemical contaminants found in a variety of sources. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are common chemical contaminants found in office and home environments and are a main source of odors. If these chemical contaminant sources are not controlled, indoor environmental quality problems can arise, even if the building’s ventilation system is properly designed and well maintained.

Health Effects

Some organics can cause damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Many of these VOCs are known to cause cancer.

Symptoms associated with exposure include:

  • eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea
  • allergic skin reaction
  • labored breathing
  • bleeding from the nose
  • fatigue
  • dizziness

Not all VOCs have all these health effects, though many have several. Details on the health effects of each specific VOC can be found in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Toxic Substances Portal.

Steps to Reduce Your Exposure

Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs.

Use household products according to manufacturer’s directions.

Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials inside your home.

Dispose of unused or infrequently used containers safely; buy in quantities that you will use soon.

Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.