Volatile organic compounds change easily from liquid form to vapor. Some are common air pollutants.
What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
Organic compounds are chemicals that contain carbon and are found in all living things. Volatile organic compounds, sometimes referred to as VOCs, are organic compounds that easily become vapors or gases. Along with carbon, they contain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, sulfur or nitrogen.
Volatile organic compounds are released from burning fuel, such as gasoline, wood, coal, or natural gas. They are also released from solvents, paints, glues, and other products that are used and stored at home and at work.
Many volatile organic compounds are commonly used in paint thinners, lacquer thinners, moth repellents, air fresheners, hobby supplies, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, degreasers, automotive products, and dry cleaning fluids.
How might I be exposed to volatile organic compounds?
Volatile organic compounds are common air pollutants found in most of the air in the United States. You can be exposed to volatile organic compounds outdoors by breathing polluted air that contains them. You are most likely to be exposed to volatile organic compounds outdoors in the summer, when the sun and hot temperatures react with pollution to form smog, causing government officials to issue air quality alerts.
Indoors, products that contain volatile organic compounds release emissions when you use them, and to a smaller degree, when they are stored. You can be exposed to volatile organic compounds at home if you use cleaning, painting, or hobby supplies that contain them. You can also be exposed if you dry-clean your clothes with home dry-cleaning products; if you dry-clean your clothes at a professional dry-cleaners; or if you use graphics and crafts materials such as glues, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.
At work, you can be exposed to volatile organic compounds if you work at a dry-cleaner, a photography studio, or an office that uses copiers, printers, or correction fluids. You can also be exposed if you work in chemical manufacturing or with petroleum-based products.
How can volatile organic compounds affect my health?
The health effects of volatile organic compounds can vary greatly according to the compound, which can range from being highly toxic to having no known health effects. The health effects of volatile organic compounds will depend on nature of the volatile organic compound, the level of exposure, and length of exposure.
According to the Eleventh Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program, benzene is “known to be a human carcinogen”; formaldehyde and percholroethylene are “reasonably anticipated to be carcinogens.” People at the highest risk of long-term exposure to these three volatile organic compounds are industrial workers who have prolonged exposure to the compounds in the workplace; cigarette smokers; and people who have prolonged exposure to emissions from heavy motor vehicle traffic.
Long-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Short-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue, loss of coordination, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and memory impairment.
If you think you have been exposed to benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, or perchloroethylene, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.