What are VOCs, and Why are they Harmful?

What are VOCs, and Why are they Harmful?

VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds are gaseous chemicals released from some products and processes. These compounds are lighter than air at room temperature and are the reason behind smells like paint, thinner, and perfumes. Exposure to VOCs is unavoidable as it is present in several products used in indoor areas like homes and workplaces. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may lead to adverse effects on our health. 

Where do VOCs come from?

VOCs comprise a group of chemicals that evaporate at room temperature, from some solids to liquids. Both natural and human-made sources emit volatile organic compounds. Possible sources of VOCs comprise many indoor products such as paints, varnishes, cleaning products, cosmetics, pesticides, building materials, office equipment, adhesives, refrigerant, etc. Other sources of VOCs are the combustion products of wood, gasoline, and fuels; automobile emissions and tobacco smoke are sources of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) in outdoor and indoor environments, respectively. 

Several household products have VOCs as ingredients. Paints, varnishes, and wax contain organic solvents, and so do many cleaning, disinfecting cosmetics, degreasing, and hobby products. Organic chemicals are also present in fuels. All these products can release organic compounds while in use and, to some degree, when stored.  

Are we at a greater risk indoors than outdoors?

An array of household products emit volatile organic compounds. The concentration of many such compounds is higher indoors than outdoors. According to different studies, the levels of several organics result in 2 to 5 times more indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours after certain activities, such as paint stripping, the levels may get 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels.

Following is a list of indoor products that are rich sources of VOCs:

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  • Paints, paint strippers, and other solvents

  • Wood preservatives

  • Aerosol sprays

  • Cleansers and disinfectants

  • Moth repellents and air fresheners

  • Stored fuels and automotive products

  • Hobby supplies

  • Dry-cleaned clothing

  • Pesticide

  • Building materials and furnishings

  • Workplace essentials like copiers, printers, correction fluids, and carbonless copy paper.

  • Graphics and craft materials like glue, adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

Health impacts of exposure to VOCs: 

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The risk of health effects from inhaling any chemical depends on its concentration in the air, duration, and frequency of exposure.

Breathing in a low level of VOCs for longer durations may increase one's risk of health problems. Several studies suggest that exposure to VOCs may lead to adverse symptoms in people with asthma or who are particularly sensitive to chemicals. These exposures are different from occupational exposures. One must remember that VOCs refer to a group of chemicals. Each chemical has its toxicity and potential to cause severe health effects.

Common symptoms of a high level of VOC exposure may affect people with respiratory conditions like asthma, young children, the elderly, and people with higher sensitivity to chemicals and they may be more prone to irritation and illness from VOCs.

How to reduce the exposure?

  • Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs.

  • Meet or exceed any label precautions.

  • Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials indoors.

  • Identify and remove the source if possible.

  • If not possible to remove, reduce exposure by using a sealant on all exposed surfaces of paneling and other furnishings.

  • Use integrated pest management techniques to minimize the need for pesticides. 

  • Use household products according to the manufacturer's directions.

  • Make sure you provide plenty of fresh air when using these products.

  • Throw away unused or leftover containers safely.

  • Keep out of reach of children and pets.

  • Never mix household care products unless indicated on the label.

Volatile organic compounds are a group of chemical compounds that vary in toxicity. Any pollutant inhaled consistently can lead to severe health effects. While VOCs are present in many products we use daily, it is crucial to be aware of their negative impact on health and take necessary steps to reduce exposure. By following label precautions, increasing ventilation, and properly storing and disposing of products that contain VOCs, we can help protect ourselves and our families from the potential negative impacts of these chemicals. It is also important to note that each chemical within the group of VOCs has its unique toxicity and potential to cause health effects, so it is essential to be mindful of the products we use and the potential risks they may pose.










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