Everything You Need To Know About Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are everywhere around you. Taking in a deep breath, even in the comfort of your own home, can have a negative effect on your health if VOCs are present. It can be scary to think that the air you are breathing could someday cause you to develop asthma or cancer. 

When the human nose cannot detect danger, it is difficult to believe it may be all around us. Yet, that is the hidden hazard of VOCs. Oftentimes, VOCs waft through our homes and other indoor spaces disguised as pleasant-smelling fragrances, so our noses are fooled by the presentation. After all, if something has a pleasant scent, it cannot possibly be bad for us, right? Wrong.

VOCs are concerning, whether they are polluting the indoor or outdoor air. When indoors, Volatile Organic Compounds have a higher potential for posing health risks to humans due to their higher concentrations. If levels of VOCs are high enough indoors, they can cause several symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Headaches
  • Memory impairment
  • Visual disorders

There are ways to help reduce the level of VOCs in your indoor environment. Air purifiers are an excellent solution when you purchase one with adequate levels of filtration.

What are Volatile Organic Compounds?

There is no simple answer to this question. Before you can fully grasp the seriousness of Volatile Organic Compounds’ environmental effects, you must have a deeper understanding of where VOCs come from and how common they are in the world around us.

In simple terms, Volatile Organic Compounds are carbon-based and evaporate when at room temperature. Gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide are not considered Volatile Organic Compounds since they do not have low boiling points. These VOCs have high vapor pressure at room temperatures. 

A VOC with a high vapor pressure at room temperature and a low boiling point is more likely to evaporate and disperse into the air you breathe. This is when a VOC is the most dangerous. Most people are completely unaware they are breathing in Volatile Organic Compounds in their homes, workplaces, favorite stores, and even while enjoying the outdoors.

It is impossible to completely eliminate Volatile Organic Compounds from the environment since they are part of many of the products that we use every day. VOCs are what give everything from room air fresheners and disinfecting cleaners to the perfume or cologne you wear their unique fragrance. 

VOCs are the main contributor to air pollution at ground levels and since you cannot remove all VOCs from the environment, the next best thing is to reduce their levels, especially in your home. The lowest levels of VOCs measure at less than 0.3 micrograms per cubic foot and acceptable levels are between 0.3 and 0.5 micrograms per cubic foot. 

Most people in the U.S. spend 90 percent of their lives indoors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed concentrations of some pollutants, including Volatile Organic Compounds, are 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. That is a lot of time to breathe indoor air that may be polluted with VOCs.

How VOCs affect your health

VOCs are strongly regulated in industrial settings in the U.S and the EPA has stringent guidelines for industrial applications of VOCs that can affect outdoor air quality. At present, there are no federally enforceable standards pertaining to Volatile Organic Compounds in non-industrial settings like in homes, stores, or workplaces.

When the human body is repeatedly exposed to Volatile Organic Compounds, the effects are subtle at first and may include any (or all) of the following symptoms:

  • Allergic reactions (itching, sneezing, watery eyes)
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Headaches
  • Upper respiratory infections

For instance, if you suddenly find yourself suffering from a lot of “head colds” or other upper respiratory infections, a hidden VOC could be the culprit behind your repeated illnesses.

Volatile Organic Compounds can also aggravate existing conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia. Long-term exposure to VOCs is believed to be a contributing factor to the development of chronic respiratory diseases in both adults and children. 

There are other ways VOCs affect your health. We discuss them more in-depth in the section below, examining the impact of Volatile Organic Compounds on indoor air quality and health.

Volatile Organic Compound list

Major sources of Volatile Organic Compounds are all around us, including in some of the most common household items we use every day. Look at the ingredient labels on the cleaning agents, laundry detergents, air fresheners, and personal hygiene products you have in your home. Chances are they will contain some — if not all — of these common Volatile Organic Compounds:

  • Acetone is a flammable liquid solvent that is used in nail polish, paint remover, and other similar products.
  • Arsine is a flammable and non-irritating toxic gas that is used to manufacture microchips.
  • Benzene is a light yellow, flammable liquid found in products including industrial solvents, paints, glues, detergents, and gasoline.
  • Ethylene glycol is used to manufacture polyester fibers and is found in antifreeze.
  • Formaldehyde is a disinfectant and preservative found in building materials and in most household products.
  • Methylene chloride (dichloromethane) is a key ingredient in most paint strippers. It is also found in a variety of adhesives, primarily those used by hobbyists.
  • Styrene is used to make anything that is rubber or plastic, which includes packaging for just about every common household product.
  • Tetrachloroethylene is a popular ingredient in paints, spot (stain) removers, glues, wood cleaners, and water repellents.
  • Toluene is found in aerosol and liquid multipurpose cleaners, floor polishes, paint thinners, spray paints, and primers, and wood sealers.
  • Xylene is a popular ingredient in gasoline, paint, rust preventatives, shellac, and varnish.

Product manufacturers use these volatile organic compound sources as ingredients for one simple reason: they work. No one wants to use a glue product that does not hold things together or a paint product that does not glide smoothly onto the wall.

Even that bubble bath and those scented candles you use to help you relax and relieve stress contain harmful VOCs. They may smell nice and feel good on your skin, but the hidden ingredients making all that possible are common contributors to unhealthy indoor air quality.

For a complete listing of all the household products that contain these VOCs, visit the Consumer Product Information Database. The database allows you to search by brands, product type, ingredients, manufacturers, and health effects.

Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds

There is a variety of VOCs known as Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds (MVOCs). MVOCs tend to produce a very distinct odor. Many people describe it as a “locker room” smell because of its propensity for distributing a dank, musty smell throughout an indoor space. Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds make people immediately ill and long-term exposure can lead to serious health conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other upper respiratory ailments.

How do Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds affect your health? Indoors, repeated exposure to MVOCs causes everything from dizziness and headaches to fatigue and nasal irritation. It can be difficult to pinpoint the cause of these symptoms since there are other triggers for them. 

Complicating matters is the limited information on how much exposure to MVOCs is required to cause adverse reactions. Also, scientists have not yet identified the specific toxic properties and concentrations of MVOCs that prompt symptoms in some people.

If you suspect MVOCs are causing unpleasant issues like headaches and nasal irritation, there are some things you can do to improve your indoor air quality. Air purifiers are an effective tool against MVOCs and other harmful pollutants. You will need one with a specialized carbon filter to trap MVOCs and other VOCs.

Other steps you can take to reduce decrease MVOCs in your home environment:

  • Schedule a professional HVAC system and air duct cleaning.
  • Keep indoor humidity levels around 45 percent regardless of the season.
  • Disconnect any built-in humidification features on HVAC systems.
  • Replace carpeting with synthetic flooring.
  • Improve airflow through open windows or an air recovery system.

Volatile Organic Compounds natural sources

Not all VOCs are man-made as some Volatile Organic Compounds have natural sources. Harmful hydrocarbons are also produced by many things in nature and cannot be avoided. Educating yourself about where and how Volatile Organic Compounds naturally occur can help you avoid overexposure to them, even when outdoors. 

Here are just a few of the naturally present sources of VOCs:

  • Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases in existence. When organic material breaks down or decays, the process introduces methane into the environment. Some natural sources of methane include decaying plants in wetlands and the digestion of food by cattle. Large cattle farms, where manure is plentiful, are one of the major sources of Volatile Organic Compounds.
  • Terpenoids are the compounds that make flowers and plants smell. They are also the main source of VOCs released by plants and flowers. This can be a source of both indoor and outdoor VOC exposure if you have a lot of plants, especially flowering plants, in your home.
  • Carbon monoxide, methane, toluene, and benzene are just a few of the VOCs found in wood smoke. Any activity that includes wood burning, including campfires and indoor wood fireplaces, are natural producers of VOC.

There is some good news when it comes to natural sources of Volatile Organic Compounds. Most tend to exist outdoors, where they do not accumulate in significant enough quantities to pose much of a health threat to people.

Volatile Organic Compounds indoor air quality and health

Volatile Organic Compound effects on indoor air quality are well-documented as VOCs make indoor air unhealthy for prolonged human consumption. Aside from the minor health issues VOCs cause — eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness — there are more serious long-term consequences of continuing to breathe in VOCs every day.

There is limited evidence to suggest that some Volatile Organic Compounds cause cancer in humans. The overall health risks associated with VOCs depend on the concentration of VOC in the air and your length of exposure to it. 

Higher concentrations of Volatile Organic Compounds, especially indoors, can damage the central nervous system, the kidneys, and the liver. If you suspect you are exposed to VOCs regularly, watch out for these warning signs and symptoms:

  • Prolonged eye, nose, and throat irritation that is not caused by a cold or other preexisting health condition
  • Dizziness or headaches that do not resolve with the usual remedies for these ailments
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Skin rashes and other irritations
  • Loss of memory
  • Visual disorders (blurred vision, watery eyes, pressure behind the eyes)

Knowing how Volatile Organic Compounds affect indoor air quality and health is the first step toward limiting your exposure to them. To avoid over-exposure to VOCs and control your contact with VOCs, here are some tips.

  • Use organic and other natural products when possible. Some manufacturers advertise their products as VOC-free. Paint makers are among the businesses getting in on the VOC-free trend, eliminating harmful VOCs from paints, paint thinners, and paint strippers.
  • Keep your indoor spaces well-ventilated. Whether you are in your home or office, make sure there is adequate airflow. That may require opening a window or door if a central HVAC system is not pushing through enough fresh air. If you know you will be working with a product that contains VOCs, it is more important than ever to introduce fresh air into the environment the entire time the product is in use.
  • Avoid burning indoors. Yes, this includes wood-burning fireplaces. While a candle or two is not going to produce enough Volatile Organic Compounds to make indoor air quality toxic, using lamps, stoves, and wood-burning fireplaces can generate enough VOCs to negatively impact indoor air quality.
  • Limit the use of plastics. One-use plastics are popular with product manufacturers because they are cheap and convenient. Plastics, unfortunately, are not great for our environment due to the number of VOCs it contains. Avoid using plastic as much as you can and never heat anything in plastic above room temperatures to avoid releasing these dangerous chemicals into your indoor air.

People who have pre-existing health conditions such as allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitivity are likely to be more susceptible to VOC-induced illnesses and irritations.

How do you remove VOCs from the air?

Just because Volatile Organic Compounds are everywhere does not mean we have to sit back and breathe them in without recourse. There are effective ways to help reduce the level of VOCs and MVOCs in your indoor environment. As we mentioned before, increasing ventilation is helpful for decreasing VOC concentrations indoors. 

Another method for combatting the harmful effects of Volatile Organic Compounds and reducing their impact on indoor air quality and health is with a top-quality air purifier. Some air purifiers eliminate the dangers of dust, while others target VOCs and other harmful bacteria and viruses polluting your indoor air. 

Choosing the right air purifier for the job requires purchasing the correct size for your indoor spaces and a unit with the right kind of filter. Make sure you choose an air purifier that not only improves your indoor air quality but is also manufactured by a company that cares about its environmental footprint.

Air purifier technologies to avoid

Not all air purification systems are created equally. When it comes to removing Volatile Organic Compounds from your indoor spaces, it is best to avoid air purifiers that use certain technologies. HEPA filters are not enough to contain VOCs, so you’ll want to look for air purifiers that combine technology if gases are your main concern. 

Some air purifier manufacturers promote the use of an ozone generator or ionizer to improve your indoor air quality against VOCs. The theory is these devices will attack VOCs at the molecular level. It is true that ozone can remove smoke, odors, mold, and some other forms of air pollution, but it is not recommended for in-home use.

Ozone systems have the potential of fixing one problem (VOCs) while causing another one. Some people experience health issues when exposed to ozone air purifiers, especially those with preexisting asthma symptoms. The EPA also warns that ozone generators have the following negative health effects:

  • They can decrease lung function.
  • They can aggravate asthma.
  • They can cause coughing and throat irritation
  • They can cause chest pain and shortness of breath.
  • They can cause inflammation of the lung tissue.
  • They can increase the risk of respiratory infection.

Another option is electrostatic air purifiers. They capture solid particles and liquid droplets with an electrically charged screen or panel. However, electrostatic air filters cannot remove Volatile Organic Compounds. They are only effective at ridding your home of dander, dust, and mold.

A final option on the market is Photochemical Oxidation (PCO) air filtration systems. They work by using UV-C light to “clean” the indoor air of pollutants. There is just one problem: they require prolonged exposure to UV-C light to break down pollutants slowly over time. For this reason, they are an inefficient way to quickly rid your home of VOCs. UV-C light has another drawback — it produces ozone.

How to choose a quality air purifier for VOCs

Knowing air purifiers can remove VOCs and improve indoor air quality is one thing. Choosing the right model to fit your needs is another. There are a lot of choices for air purification systems. Some are designed to target air quality at room level, while others are whole-house filtration systems.

Filtering Volatile Organic Compounds from your home requires more than an air purifier with a HEPA filter. You must choose one that uses either an activated carbon filter or a proprietary gas filter like the Erik 650A. This air purifier includes advanced gas control and is effective against certain VOCs. Its coverage area is 1,560 square feet, making it ideal for homes and offices.

Another option is the OV200. It is compact and convenient for use in the home without cluttering your living space. Best of all, this air purifier uses a three-stage filtration system that includes an activated carbon filter. 

Neither the Erik 650A nor the OV200 uses ionizers or electric filtering systems, so you can breathe easy knowing they are not releasing harmful byproducts that will further pollute your indoor air quality.

How do carbon filters improve indoor air quality?

Several times in this article, carbon filters were mentioned as an effective means of ridding your home of VOCs. What makes carbon filters more effective than HEPA filters for containing VOCs? Carbon filters use a process known as adsorption to remove airborne pollutants from your home to improve your indoor air quality. 

What makes absorption different is pollutants like VOCs are attracted to the tiny carbon particles in the filter’s adsorption bed. A VOC or any other harmful pollutant makes its way to the adsorption bed and is trapped and held inside the filter so it cannot escape back into the air you breathe.

The trick to keeping an air purifier with a carbon filter working efficiently is to change the filter when indicated. Most air purification systems have a warning light that lets you know when the filter is nearing its end of life. 

You will also want to control humidity levels in your home to ensure your carbon filter does not become saturated with moisture. If that happens, it will not have adequate space to trap VOCs and other harmful pollutants. Keeping humidity levels at 45 percent year-round is highly recommended.

What are MERV ratings, and how do they relate to VOCs?

Wondering how to make sure you have a carbon-filtered air purifier that will tackle even the toughest VOCs? Rely on MERV to help you out. MERV ratings tell you just how effective your filter traps are by giving them a score of 1 to 16. As a rule, the higher the MERV rating, the more efficient the carbon filter is at trapping Volatile Organic Compounds and other harmful airborne pollutants.