VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)
VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids (That “smell” at the filling station? Those are VOCs). These include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many compounds are consistently higher indoors than outdoors.
Household products that emit the compounds can include: 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.
Fossil fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored. Whether stinky – gasoline – or pleasing – cologne – if you can smell it, it is likely a volatile organic compound.
EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study” (Volumes I through IV, completed in 1985) found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. TEAM studies indicated that while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.
Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to the compounds include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.
The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of volatile organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.
Reduce Your Exposure
Increase ventilation when using products that the compounds. Meet or exceed any label precautions. Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials within the home. Also, be sure to adhere to the following:
- Use household products according to manufacturer’s directions.
- Make sure you provide plenty of fresh air when using these products.
- Throw away unused or little-used containers safely; buy in quantities that you will use soon.
- Keep out of reach of children and pets.
- Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.
For Additional Information
Search EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) (a compilation of electronic reports on specific substances found in the environment and their potential to cause human health effects)
Review information on dangerous compounds in water sources developed by the U.S. Geology Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program and their Toxic Substances Hydrology Program: Toxic Program Research on VOCs