Volatile organic compounds in products overview

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a family of organic compounds that contain one or more carbon atoms and have high vapour pressures so that they evaporate readily into the atmosphere. While there are thousands of compounds that meet this definition, the VOCs under our management are those that participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions and thus are harmful to human health and the environment. These VOCs are defined under Schedule 1 (item 65) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999), which exclude photo-chemically low-reactive compounds such as methane, ethane and the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

In urban areas, consumer and commercial products are the major source of VOC emissions, including:

  • aerosol coatings
  • architectural coatings
  • automotive refinishing products
  • cutback asphalt and emulsified asphalt
  • printing and inks, and
  • certain products

Impacts on human health and the environment

VOCs are precursor pollutants that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which are the main constituents of smog. Exposure to ground-level ozone and PM2.5 can lead to adverse health impacts such as respiratory and cardiac symptoms that can, in some cases, lead to premature death.

Scientific evidence also indicates that ground-level ozone can lead to reductions in agricultural crop and commercial forest yields, and increased plant susceptibility to disease, pests, and other environmental stresses. 

What we are doing

In 2009, the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Automotive Refinishing Products Regulations and the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Architectural Coatings Regulations were published.

In 2017, stronger ambient air quality standards were introduced for nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), two air pollutants that contribute to smog and acid rain. The same year, the Code of Practice for the Reduction of Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Emissions from Cutback and Emulsified Asphalt was published, aimed at reducing VOC emissions from the asphalt sector by at least 40 percent (three to five kilotonnes) over a 6-year period.

On January 5, 2022 the Volatile Organic Compound Concentration Limits for Certain Products Regulations were published. The regulations target several product categories such as personal care, automotive and household maintenance products, adhesives, adhesive removers, sealants and caulks and other miscellaneous products.

On the international front, Canada has ratified the Gothenburg Protocol, the only legally binding international instrument to address air pollution. It also targets SO2, NOx and PM2.5 emissions. Canada has committed to:

  • an emission ceiling for VOCs of 2,100 kilotonnes to be met by 2010  (achieved)
  • a 20 percent emission reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 (indicative)
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