Volatile organic compounds overview

Volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from consumer and commercial products are a significant contributing factor in the creation of air pollution in urban areas. The use of consumer and commercial products results in emissions of VOCs from solvent-based products, and to a lesser extent, water-based products. These emissions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which form smog. The Government of Canada is working to reduce emissions of air pollutants in order to protect the environment and health of Canadians.

Please see the section below for general information on VOCs or see the links at the left for specific information on actions to reduce these emissions.

What Are VOCs?

VOCs are organic compounds containing one or more carbon atoms that have high vapour pressures and therefore evaporate readily to the atmosphere. There are thousands of compounds that meet this definition, but most programs focus on the 50 to 150 most abundant compounds containing two to twelve carbon atoms. Environment Canada defines VOCs under Schedule 1 (item 65) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999). This definition excludes photochemically low-reactive compounds such as methane, ethane and the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Why are We Concerned about VOCs?

VOCs are primary precursors to the formation of ground level ozone and particulate matter which are the main ingredients of smog. Smog is known to have adverse effects on human health and the environment. The Environment Canada Clean Air site provides more information on smog formation.

A recent smog science assessment conducted by the Government of Canada concluded that both particulate matter and ozone need to be treated as having no safe level.    

What Are the Potential Impacts on Human Health and the Environment?

Air pollution has been shown to have a significant adverse impact on human health, including premature deaths, hospital admissions and emergency room visits.  Studies indicate that air pollution is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease. 

Scientific evidence also indicates that ground level ozone can have a detrimental impact on the environment.  This impact can lead to reductions in agricultural crop and commercial forest yields, reduced growth and survivability of tree seedlings, and increased plant susceptibility to disease, pests, and other environmental stresses (e.g. harsh weather). 

What Is the Government of Canada Doing to Address VOC Emissions?

Almost all ground-level ozone and about two-thirds of particulate matter are formed in the atmosphere through the reactions of precursor substances, with VOCs being one of the most significant. Consequently,  Canada’s approach to reduce atmospheric levels of particulate matter and ozone is to reduce the precursor emissions, including VOCs.

VOC emissions stem from both anthropogenic (human-made) and natural sources, but it is the anthropogenic sources of VOCs in populated and industrialized areas that are the main contributors to air quality problems. A major source of VOC emissions in Canada is the use of solvents and solvent-containing products. Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory and the Air Pollutants Emission Inventory provide more information on VOC emission sources.

Environment Canada is working to reduce VOC emissions resulting from the use of solvents in consumer and commercial products. These are individually small sources of VOC emissions, but overall contribute significantly to the atmospheric emissions of VOCs and associated air quality problems. Consumer and commercial products include a wide array of products such as household cleaning products, personal care products, paints, and printing inks. More information on Canada’s annual VOC  emissions are available on the Environmental Indicators website.

In order to address the concerns associated with VOC emissions, the Government of Canada initiated many actions including:

  • On July 2, 2003, ozone and its precursors and precursors to respirable PM10, including VOCs were added to Schedule 1 of CEPA 1999. The addition of VOCs to Schedule 1 of CEPA 1999 provides Environment Canada with additional tools and the legal authority to develop and propose measures to control VOCs.

  • On March 27, 2004, the Ministers of Environment and Health published a Notice of Intent entitled "Federal Agenda on the Reduction of Emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds from Consumer and Commercial Products" in the Canada Gazette, Part I. This document outlines a series of measures to be developed and implemented between 2004 and 2010 to reduce emissions of VOCs from consumer and commercial products.

    The Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Automotive Refinishing Products Regulations were published on July 8, 2009, and the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Architectural Coatings Regulations were published on September 30, 2009.  These regulations align with a number of regulations in California and other U.S. jurisdictions, and are predicted to result in an average annual reduction in VOC emissions varying from 28% to 40% from their respective product categories. Furthermore, proposed Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Certain Products Regulations were published in the Canada Gazette, Part I, on April 26, 2008. A consultation document outlining the planned path forward with respect to revising the Proposed Regulations was published on January 21, 2013.

  • In June 2010, Environment Canada published a discussion paper on the proposed renewal of the Federal Agenda. The discussion paper outlines a number of possible initiatives for the Government of Canada to take in order to reduce VOC emissions from consumer and commercial products from 2010 to 2020. Seven categories of consumer and commercial products, including cutback asphalts, aerosol coatings and printing were identified as the preferred next focus for the development of control and reduction measures by the Government of Canada. Please see the links at the left for more information on these categories.

  • In 2012, federal, provincial and territorial governments agreed to take further action to protect the health of Canadians and the environment with measures to improve air quality in Canada, through a comprehensive new Air Quality Management System (AQMS). This system will introduce new ambient air quality standards, provide a framework for managing air quality and the transboundary flow of air pollutants through local air zones and regional airsheds, and will establish emissions requirements for major industrial sectors and equipment types.

  • On May 25, 2013, the Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards (CAAQS) were published in the Canada Gazette, Part I. The CAAQS replaced the Canada-wide Standards (2000) and provide more stringent objectives for outdoor air quality in Canada. For the first time in Canada, the standards also include a long-term (annual) target for fine particulate matter.

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