Introduction to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are air pollutants that may cause short- and long-term health effects. They are important factors in Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), which is the quality of the air in your home, child's school or place of business. Some chemicals included in this classification are:

  • 4-Phenylcyclohexene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Benzene
  • Styrene
  • Butylated Hydroxytolune (BHT)
  • Methylene Chloride
  • Perchloroethylene
  • Ethanol
  • D-Limonene
  • Phthalates

An Environmental Protection Association (EPA) study showed that a number of organic pollutants have levels two to five times higher inside homes than outside. And because VOCs enter our homes in many ways, they are something that nearly everyone has to be concerned with. Here are some of the products and activities associated with VOCs.

Home Improvement and VOCs

Many home improvement projects can release VOCs into our homes because they are found in paints, lacquers, paint strippers, and building materials. Pressed wood products are often made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. This includes particleboard, hardwood plywood paneling, and medium density fiberboard (MDF).

VOCs are emitted by new carpets. The presence of these compounds means that special care must be taken with ventilation when new carpeting is installed. More desirable are carpets, padding, and installation adhesives with low VOC ratings, which may be indicated by a “green label” on the packaging.

Home Maintenance and VOCs

Cleaning can make the VOC situation in a home worse. How can that be? Many cleaning, disinfecting, and degreasing products contain VOCs, so the act of cleaning can actually introduce them into the home environment.

Automobiles and VOCs

Both the benzene in automobile emissions in attached garages and stored fuels and automotive products can be sources of VOCs.

The Home Office and VOCs

Home office equipment such as copiers, faxes, printers, as well as correction fluid and carbonless copy paper are sources of VOCs.

Personal Care Products and VOCs

VOCs are a primary component of perfume, which is used on its own and in a variety of beauty products. Our contact with them, therefore, comes through both skin contact and inhalation. These VOCs are a source of health concerns to many. To research personal care products that may be of concern to you, use this resource on the Environmental Working Group web site.

Arts & Crafts and VOCs

Adhesives and glues have long been known as sources of VOCs. Permanent marker and photographic solutions are two other products that contain VOCs.

Dry Cleaning and VOCs

Newly dry-cleaned materials expose people to perchloroethylene. The amount of this chemical still in the clothes when they return from the dry cleaner varies. If dry cleaning has a very strong odor when you pick it up, ask to have it redone. If this happens repeatedly, the EPA suggests seeking an alternative dry cleaner. Home dry cleaning kits that you use in your dryer do not expose you to perchlorethylene. However, it is generally found that they do not clean as well as professional dry cleaners.

Tobacco Smoke and VOCs

Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) contains more than 4,000 substances, including the VOC benzene. Benzene is known to be a human carcinogen, and tobacco smoke is one of the main indoor sources.

Written by Mary Elizabeth

Related Home Institute Articles

  • Disposable Diapers
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Safety
  • Wall-to-Wall Carpeting Buying Guide
  • Introduction to Formaldehyde