- Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are present mostly as gasses at room temperature.
- They are released by a wide variety of consumer, industrial and institutional products and some are harmful to human health.
- Small changes to how you use some products can lower your exposure to these harmful chemicals.
If you’ve ever inexplicably felt sick around a new mattress or curtains, using air freshener, or visiting a nail salon, it could be you’re affected by chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. They’re emitted by a wide range of products, and some can harm your health.
Symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include headache, dizziness, nausea, and eye, nose and throat irritation.
VOCs are easily dispersed into the environment – they’re usually present as gas at room temperature and evaporate into the air. Spills or leaks of some VOCs can dissolve in water and contaminate drinking water sources. It can be tough to limit our exposure to these chemicals, because they’re so pervasive in homes and buildings.
How you’re exposed
VOCs pollute the air inside and out, but they contaminate indoor air much worse than outdoor air – two to five times worse, with some estimates putting it as high as 10 times worse. Some products emit VOCs for days, weeks or even months.
These chemicals can be found in thousands of common industrial and institutional products: building materials, furniture, office equipment and pesticides. A vast range of consumer products also emit VOCs, including cosmetics, hairspray and deodorant, cleaning products, and mattresses.
There are thousands of these chemicals. Butanol is emitted by candles, gas stoves and barbecues. Acetone can be found in household products. Formaldehyde is one of the most commonly emitted VOCs, found in engineered wood, furniture and molded plastic. Other VOCs include benzene, ethylene glycol, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene.
The ingredient “fragrance” is made up of mostly VOCs, and it’s added to many products, like cleaners, to give them an appealing smell. That’s why air fresheners may release VOCs into the air in your home or car.
How VOCs can harm you
Not all VOCs are harmful. But some may have serious health consequences.
Immediate symptoms of harmful VOC exposure can include dizziness, fatigue, visual disorders and memory impairment, loss of coordination, skin and eye irritation, lung and breathing problems, and headaches.
Longer and larger exposure may damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system. And research shows some VOCs may be linked to cancer.
Based on numerous studies, agencies have said some VOCs are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. The Environmental Protection Agency says not much is known about how the levels of VOCs in homes affects our health.
Who’s most exposed
People whose jobs bring them into frequent contact with VOCs are most exposed. A single product might release more than a hundred different VOCs. Anyone working with VOC-releasing products might be exposed to them multiple times a day or continuously.
There were nearly 1.5 million professional or domestic cleaning workers in the U.S. in 2021 – about 770,000 “maids and housekeeping cleaners” alone. Add to that the people who work in other industries where VOCs are emitted – nail salon workers, builders and construction workers, people working in furniture factories, or in the production of chemicals used in consumer goods. That’s a lot of people exposed daily to many individual VOCs.
The health consequences of VOCs are worse for the people whose jobs involve working with products that emit them. Research shows a 50 percent greater risk of asthma and a 43 percent greater risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among people working in the cleaning industry. Women in these jobs face higher odds of developing lung cancer.
But children are also at risk. Studies show that the greater the exposure to cleaning products of a developing fetus or infant, the higher the risk of asthma and wheezing in childhood.
What the government is doing
The federal government’s approach to VOCs and health is both confusing and failing.
The regulation of a VOC is categorized according to whether it “photochemically reacts in the atmosphere to produce ozone.” This means VOCs aren’t regulated if they don’t photochemically react, even if they are toxic. Products may claim to contain no or low VOCs but be toxic to people nonetheless.
The EPA says it regulates VOC pollution in air, but that it has “no authority to regulate household products (or any other aspect of indoor air quality).”
Between 1987 and 1992, the EPA set legal limits for 21 VOCs in tap water, but the standards haven’t been updated since then. Many agencies believe those limits allow for more VOC exposure than is safe for human health.
In the absence of adequate federal regulation, some states are stepping up. California, New York and Ohio have lowered VOC emissions limits and retired some categories of products that produce them.
What you can do to lower exposure
It’s tough to remove VOCs that have already been released, but increasing ventilation can help.
Air cleaners, for instance, get mixed reviews – they may trap some contaminants but can also produce new ones, depending on the type of air cleaner. A HEPA filter can remove mold, pollen and dust but can’t get rid of VOCs, since they’re too small, but the addition of an activated carbon filter can help remove VOCs.
And EWG can help – our consumer guides can show you ways to lower your exposure to VOCs. You can consult our:
- Healthy Living Home Guide for more ways to avoid VOCs and other harmful chemicals in the home.
- EWG VERIFIED® mark on cleaners. We spend at least half of each day indoors, where there may be two to five times as much air pollution as outdoors. The greatest contributors are chemicals like VOCs. The EWG VERIFIED mark identifies products that meet our strictest standards for your health.
- Tap Water Database to find out whether your drinking water contains VOCs. Many VOCs, though not all, can be effectively removed or minimized with basic countertop activated carbon filters, an economical option for mitigating water quality problems.
Here’s what else you can do:
- Check labels. Many solvents and finishes that emit VOCs say so on the label. California limits VOCs in finishes, and most companies comply with that state’s regulations. For instance, you can choose either no- or low-VOC paint.
- Look for products that disclose all ingredients – terms like “fragrance” or “surfactant” suggest a product may contain undisclosed ingredients.
- Look for products with third-party verification. The Green Seal GS-11, which limits VOCs and other harmful chemicals, certifies a wide range of paint, primer, sealant and coating, among other products.
- Choose water-based paints and coatings if Green Seal GS-11 products aren’t available. Milk paints are also a better option.
- Choose products labeled green, fragrance free or both.
- Avoid PVC plastic altogether whenever possible – it is notorious for VOC emissions.
- Ventilate and circulate air in your rooms by opening doors and windows and running fans.
- Buy and use cleaning products in the smallest quantity possible, no more than you need for the job.
- When possible, air out consumer products like mattresses or furniture that may emit VOCs.
- If you’re buying a mattress, look for certification – the Global Organic Textile Standard, Global Organic Latex Standard, and European Union Ecolabel certification all verify that the product emits lower amounts of VOCs.