Definition of Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?


Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are organic chemical compounds that are highly evaporative and can produce noxious fumes. VOCs are released into the air during normal uses of everyday products as well as during the manufacturing process of certain goods and have negative effects on both indoor and outdoor air quality.

The two main types of pollution that result from the release of VOCs are as follows:

  • Indoor air pollution: When VOCs are released into indoor air, they contribute to poor indoor air quality which can adversely impact human health by contributing to things like headaches, asthma, dizziness, mood disorders, itchy eyes, nose, or throat, nausea, liver, kidney, or central nervous system damage, allergic skin reactions, fatigue, visual disorders, and even cancer.
  • Outdoor air pollution: When released outdoors, VOCs contribute to the problem of smog or ground-level ozone pollution when they react with other chemicals in the presence of light.

Some measures classify VOCs based on how easily they are volatized. Some examples of VOCs are:

  • Acetone
  • Butane
  • Chlordane
  • Chlorogluorocarbons
  • d-Limonene
  • Ethanol 2-propanol
  • Fire retardants like PCBs and PBBs
  • Formaldehyde
  • Hexanal
  • Methyl chloride
  • Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE)
  • Pesticides such as DDT
  • Plasticizers such as phthalates
  • Propane
  • Toluene

Some VOCs are generated during normal, natural processes such as by plants through biosynthesis. But by and large, they are emitted through the production and use of everyday products and processes. VOCs are ubiquitous and used in a wide variety of everyday products, including things like:

  • Aerosol products
  • Air fresheners
  • Candles
  • Carpeting and rugs
  • Cleaning chemicals
  • Compressed wood products
  • Dry-cleaned clothing
  • Electronics
  • Fragranced or scented products
  • Furniture and mattresses
  • Landscaping chemicals
  • Linens and bedding
  • Paints
  • Personal care products
  • Pesticides
  • Sealants
  • Solvents
  • Toys and other plastic consumer goods
  • Vehicle, BBQ, home heating, and appliance fuels
  • Wood stains

Governmental health organizations have attempted to control the release of certain VOCs in both indoor and outdoor environments to prevent the health and environmental problems, but many VOCs have yet to be controlled or restricted. Consumers should be aware that terms such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” are not regulated by the US government (or most other government agencies) and cannot be trusted to indicate whether a product has lower VOC levels than its competitors. That said, there are now several certified bodies that test products for VOC levels (among other things), including:

  • Green Seal: For household products, paints and coatings, construction materials, printing and writing products, paper goods, packaging, cleaning products, and so on.
  • GREENGUARD: For adhesives and sealants, air filters, building materials, electronics, flooring, furniture, lighting, plastics, paints and coatings, textiles, medical devices, and other items.
  • Cradle to Cradle: For coatings, fabrics, athletic surfaces, baby care products, linens, personal care products, construction materials, carpets, food products, furniture, packaging, and more.
  • Scientific Certification Systems: For wood products, cleaning products, industrial products, furniture, and much more.
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