Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Safety

Volatile Organic Substances (VOCs) are an important health hazard present in nearly every home. They are present in many kinds of household products and, in fact, there are about 12 organic pollutants that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has discovered are likely to be found at two to five times higher levels in the home than outdoors.

VOCs are responsible for both short-term and long-term health issues. At the low end of the spectrum, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that VOCs can cause mild irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat and allergic skin reactions. More problematic are headaches, nausea, and loss of coordination. Some may cause damage to the liver and kidneys, as well as central nervous system damage. Some are known to be and some suspected to be carcinogens. The effects very based on individual sensitivity, exposure, and the particular VOCs involved.

Here are some ways to lessen exposure to VOCs in your home:

Home Improvement Products

  • Choose paint strippers, adhesive removers, aerosol paints and other paints, lacquers, and stains with care, and buy only what you need.

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  • Read package directions carefully, and follow safety instructions.

  • Use these products outside when possible.

  • When using pressed wood products, choose “exterior grade” over “interior grade” because the ones for outside do not contain urea resins.

  • Look for the Green Label when choosing carpet, padding, and installation adhesive to guarantee low levels of VOCs.

  • Arrange for people to be gone and the house to be well ventilated for several days after installing new carpeting or bringing new pressed wood products into your home.


  • When choosing products for cleaning, disinfecting, and degreasing, find products with low VOCs.

Automobile and Other Vehicles

  • If you have an attached garage, don’t allow the car to run while in the garage. Doing so can introduce automobile emissions, which contain VOCs, into your home, as well as deadly carbon monoxide.

  • Buy fuels (such as gasoline for lawn mowers) in limited quantities, and discard any that will not be used immediately.

The Home Office

  • Choose carefully when purchasing a printer, fax machine, or copier. Use in a well-ventilated area.

  • Use correction tape instead of correction fluid.

Personal Care Products

  • Use the Environmental Working Group web site to determine the safety level of the cosmetics you are currently using, including products used for makeup, skin care, hair care, nail care, eye care, dental and oral hygiene, and shaving as well as perfume/cologne and baby products. Change products as desired, and discard old products.

Arts and Crafts Supplies

  • The safety of photographic solution, adhesives, and glues should all be considered.

  • Unused materials that may contain VOCs should be carefully stored or, if they will not be used soon, discarded.

Dry Cleaning

  • Check your clothes when you pick them up, and request that any with a strong chemical smell be redone.

  • If the problem persists, switch cleaners and/or consider using one of the products that dry cleans in a home dryer. These are not as effective in cleaning, but are less hazardous to your health.


  • Do not yourself or allow others to smoke in your home.

Pest Control

  • Consider using non-chemical methods of pest control, when possible.

Written by Mary Elizabeth

Related Home Institute Articles

  • Introduction to Radon
  • Introduction to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
  • Radon Testing
  • Introduction to Rugs
  • Wall-to-Wall Carpeting Buying Guide
  • Introduction to Carbon Monoxide
  • Introduction to Formaldehyde