Volatile Organic Compounds

indoor air

Volatile Organic Compounds

The general definition used in the scientific literature is: Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs are organic chemical compounds whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor atmospheric conditions of temperature and pressure. Simply put, these things get in the air when inside your room. Many VOCs have concentrations that are consistently higher indoors that outdoors. Concentrations can be up to ten times higher indoors. About a dozen common organic pollutants have concentrations two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, and this is regardless of the house’s location in rural or highly industrial areas. People can expose themselves and others to very high levels. Elevated levels can persist for a long time. The effects can vary from highly toxic to no known health effects. The level and length of time exposed are important factors as to the severity of the health effects.

Pollutant Sources

Household products include but aren’t limited to:

  • Paint strippers and other solvents
  • Wood treatment
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Cleansers and disinfectants
  • Air fresheners
  • Dry-cleaned clothing
  • Pesticides

Other products include but aren’t limited to:

  • Building materials
  • Office equipment, for example printers
  • Hobby and craft materials, including glues and adhesives

Health Effects

These include but aren’t limited to:

  • Eye, nose and throat irritation
  • Headaches
  • Loss of coordination
  • Nausea
  • Damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system
  • Cancer

Some can cause cancer in animals, some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.


These include but aren’t limited to:

  • Eye irritation
  • Nose and throat discomfort
  • Headache
  • Allergic skin reaction
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Nosebleed
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Further Reading

Anand, SS; Philip, BK and Mehendale, HM. Volatile Organic Compounds. Elsevier, 2014.

EPA. Introduction to Indoor Air Quality.

Technical Overview of Volatile Organic Compounds.

Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality.

What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

EU SCHER. Indoor Air Quality.

Opinion on risk assessment on indoor air quality. SCHER, 2007.

WHO, WHO guidelines for indoor air quality – selected pollutants. World Health Organization, 2010.

Household air pollution and health.

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