This is a two part post about volatile organic compounds. Today I am describing what VOCs are and why they matter.

Volatile organic compound or VOC is the name given to a substance that contains carbon and that evaporates (becomes a vapor) or “off-gases” at room temperature. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. They are admitted through thousands of different products and concentrations are typically higher indoors.  Some common VOCs are:

  • Acetone
  • Benzene
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Formaldehyde
  • Methylene chloride
  • Perchloroethylene
  • Toluene
  • Xylene
  • 1,3-butadiene

Where do VOC’s come from?

VOCs are widely used in household and commercial products. They are especially used in chemical cleaners. You can notice substances with VOCs that have a highly chemical smell.

  • cleansers
  • disinfectants
  • waxes
  • glues
  • cosmetics
  • dry cleaning products
  • paints
  • varnishes
  • preservatives
  • gasoline
  •  kerosene and other fuels
  • cigarette smoke
  •  pesticides

A number of building and household materials may be sources of VOCs.

  • new carpeting
  • backing
  • adhesives
  • draperies
  • wood products that use certain glues, finishes, and waxes in the manufacturing process
  • vinyl type flooring
  • wall coverings

Why you should care.

Ever heard of a sick building? VOCs are a reason why many people can become sick from being around the off gases inside a building. Volatile organic compounds can be accompanied with multiple health problems, some include: irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, nausea, worsening asthma symptoms, dizziness and nerve problems. According to the Department of Health in Vermont:

Studies of animals have shown that breathing some types of VOCs over a long period of time can increase the risk of getting cancer.

Some people do not appear to have any kind of reaction to fairly “low” amounts of VOCs, while other people are fairly sensitive.While most people can smell high levels of some VOCs, other VOCs have no odor. For that reason it’s important to know how to limit your exposure to the items listed above. You should also know some ways to better deal with these chemicals when items like new carpeting or painting are not avoidable.

Tomorrow I will give tips on how to limit your exposure to VOCs  and what you can do if you are using chemicals that will contain VOCs in your home or work. 


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