Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. There are thousands of different VOCs produced and used indoors. However, many can be problematic to occupants when present in higher concentrations.
Concentrations of VOCs are higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, and photographic solutions.
The risk of health effects from inhaling any chemical depends on the concentration in the air and length of exposure. Scientists look at short-term (acute) exposures as hours to days or long-term (chronic) exposures as years to even lifetime.
Breathing low levels of VOCs for long periods of time may increase some people’s risk of health problems. Several studies suggest that exposure to VOCs may make symptoms worse in people who have asthma or are particularly sensitive to chemicals. These are much different exposures than occupational exposures to VOCs. Each chemical has its own toxicity and potential for causing different health effects.
Short term (acute) health effects include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea/vomiting, dizziness, worsening of asthma symptoms. Long term (chronic) health effects to high levels of VOCs include increased risk of cancer, liver damage, kidney damage and central nervous system damage.
The evidence of health risks is clearly sufficient to warrant that precautionary measures be taken to limit VOC and SVOC exposures. Eliminating or limiting the indoor sources of VOCs and SVOCs is the first option to consider. In some cases, sources can be reduced through behavior changes or product substitutions, while in other cases source reduction measures are complicated and require tradeoffs. Outdoor air ventilation is another main option for reducing concentrations of VOC’s.