National Pollutant Release Inventory Substance Overview: Volatile organic compounds

Every year, businesses, institutions and other facilities across Canada must report their releases and disposals of pollutants to air, water and land to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). The publicly available information helps governments set environmental priorities and monitor environmental performance. It also provides Canadians with an opportunity to learn about pollution in their neighbourhoods.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are part of the NPRI’s Substance Overview Series. This substance overview explores VOCs released, disposed of and transferred by various industries in Canada. It also summarizes what facilities do to mitigate their environmental impacts.


VOCs are a large group of chemicals that can be emitted from different natural sources and human activities. While there are thousands of compounds that meet this definition, the VOCs reported to the NPRI are those that participate in chemical reactions in the air and are harmful to human health and the environment. VOCs are precursors in the formation of ground-level ozone (O3) and particulate matter (PM), the two main components of smog.

Some common VOCs include:

Effects of VOCs

How are we exposed to VOCs?

VOCs are mostly emitted to air through manufacturing processes, vehicle emissions, the burning of fossil fuels, and the evaporation of solvents found in various consumer and commercial products. This means that they are released from facilities from a number of industrial sectors.

Consumer and commercial products, like paints and varnishes, are a key source of VOC emissions in urban areas. While these products are minor sources of VOCs, together they contribute significantly to the presence of VOCs in the atmosphere and the formation of ozone and particulate matter.

What are the effects of VOCs?

The health effects of VOCs vary considerably from one chemical to another, and are also dependent on the level and duration of exposure.

Levels of VOCs are typically higher in indoor air as compared to outdoor air. Some people may be more susceptible to the health effects associated with exposure to VOCs in indoor air, such as those with asthma. Research is ongoing to better understand health effects from long-term exposure to low levels of VOCs.

Adverse health and environmental effects from VOC exposure are experienced across Canada due to the formation of other air pollutants, including ground-level ozone and particulate matter. Health effects may include respiratory and cardiac symptoms that can lead to premature deaths each year, as well as increased hospital visits, doctor visits, and lost days at work and school.

Scientific evidence suggests that ground-level ozone can have harmful environmental impacts such as reductions in agricultural crop and commercial forest yields. This is because ozone absorbed through plants’ pores and leaves can cause direct physical damage leading to premature aging, reduced cycling of carbon dioxide and reduced growth. Ozone and particulate matter can also have negative, indirect effects on wildlife through influences on vegetation, soil conditions and changes to habitats on which they depend. 

Facilities that report VOCs to the NPRI

In 2019, 3,736 facilities reported releases of VOCs to the NPRI. These covered several different industrial sectors, Conventional Oil and Gas Extraction (excluding Oil Sands) and Other Manufacturing were the most frequent with 2,434 and 245 facilities, respectively. The Conventional Oil and Gas Extraction sector increased significantly from 374 facilities in 2017. This was due to changes in NPRI reporting requirements such as change in thresholds and added speciated VOCs.

A number of VOC-emitting facilities are located along the Great Lakes and, the St. Lawrence River, where significant industrial activity takes place.

There is a high concentration of Conventional Oil and Gas Extraction facilities located in southern Saskatchewan, Alberta, and northeastern British Columbia. The oil sands facilities are mostly located in northeastern Alberta. British Columbia has many forestry-related facilities spread throughout the interior of the province.

NPRI facility locations that released VOCs in 2019

NPRI facility locations that released volatile organic compounds in 2019
Long Description
NPRI Facility locations that released VOCs in 2019
Province Number of Facilities
Alberta 1,951
British Columbia
Manitoba 44
New Brunswick 27
Newfoundland and Labrador 16
Northwest Territories
Nova Scotia
Nunavut 1
Prince Edward Island
Quebec 310
Saskatchewan 574
Yukon 1
Total 3,736

Releases to air

In 2019, 241,660 tonnes of VOCs were released to air by facilities that reported to the NPRI. This represents approximately a 10% increase from 2010 levels (216,472 tonnes).

The oil sands sector emits the largest quantity of VOCs, with over 110,856 tonnes in 2019. Within the Alberta oil sands, fugitive emissions, tailings ponds and open mine faces, mining vehicle fleets, stacks and other non-industrial emissions are the key sources of VOC releases. For more information on oil sands operations, view our oil sands extraction sector overview.

Total release of VOCs by NPRI facilities in 2019

Total Releases of VOCs by NPRI facilities in 2019
Long Description
Legend - total releases to Air (tonnes)

Government actions on VOCs

The Government of Canada has put in place a wide range of regulatory and non-regulatory measures in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, industry and other stakeholders as part of a comprehensive risk management strategy for VOCs.

Emissions from the petroleum sector are one source of VOCs that may pose health and environmental risks to Canadians. The proposed Regulations Respecting Reduction in the Release of Volatile Organic Compounds (Petroleum Sector) are designed to, among other things, decrease the unintended release of VOCs from equipment leaks, decrease exposure to toxic substances and decrease smog formation. The proposed regulations would apply to petroleum refineries, upgraders and certain petrochemical facilities in Canada. They would require these facilities to:

Fugitive emissions are unintended and uncontrolled releases of VOCs from industrial equipment. They can be distributed across a wide range of equipment and processes. In the iron, steel and ilmenite sector, fugitive VOC releases can occur during cokemaking, blast furnace ironmaking, material coating and material storage. The Code of Practice to Reduce Fugitive Emissions of Total Particulate Matter and Volatile Organic Compounds from the Iron, Steel and Ilmenite Sector identifies and promotes best practices for steel mills to improve their management of environmental performance of fugitive particulate matter and VOCs. The voluntary code contains 30 recommendations that cover various aspects of the industry.

The 2017 pollution prevention planning notice for the iron, steel and ilmenite sector was developed to achieve and maintain industrial emissions requirements for nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and VOCs and air emission targets and implement best practices to reduce fugitive VOC emissions, where appropriate and practicable.

In 2017, the Code of Practice for the Reduction of Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Emissions from Cutback and Emulsified Asphalt was published. It was aimed at reducing VOC emissions from the asphalt usage from various sectors by at least 40% (3,000 to 5,000 tonnes) over a six-year period.

Other Government Actions

In 2009, the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Architectural Coatings Regulations were published. Architectural coatings are products such as paints, stains, varnishes and lacquers applied to road surfaces or to a wide variety of stationary structures in residential, commercial, institutional and industrial settings. Consumer and commercial use of architectural coatings result in the emission of VOCs by evaporation during the drying process, following application of the coating to a surface. The Regulations set mandatory VOC concentration limits for 53 categories of architectural coatings, including traffic marking coatings.

See a complete list of action on VOCs in products.

Air quality

In 2012, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment adopted the Air Quality Management System as a collaborative approach to managing air issues. Included in the system are Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter and ozone. 

In 2017, stronger air quality standards were introduced for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), two air pollutants that contribute to smog and acid rain. A new air quality standard for ground-level ozone for 2025 was published in 2019. See the State of the Air Report for more information on Canada’s air quality.

International co-operation

Canada works with international partners to address air pollutants that cross borders and affect Canada’s air quality. For this reason, Canada and the United States signed the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement in 1991 to reduce pollutants that cause acid rain. In 2000, the Ozone Annex, which commits both countries to reduce their emissions of VOCs and nitrogen oxides, was added to the Agreement.

In 2017, Canada ratified the Gothenburg Protocol under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. It was established to address pollutants that cause acidification and ground-level ozone. It sets limits on emissions of air pollutants, including VOCs, sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). Canada has committed to:

Pollution prevention

Facilities can do a number of things to prevent pollution and waste at the source. Examples of pollution prevention (P2) activities that facilities have used to target VOCs include:

Learn more about pollution prevention and how facilities and individuals can help protect the environment.


These charts provide a more in-depth look at releases of VOCs reported to the NPRI.

Percent of Total Releases by Industry Sector in 2019
Long Description
Percent of total releases by industrial sector for 2019
Sector Percentage
Conventional Oil and Gas extraction
Non-Conventional Oil Extraction (including Oilsands and Heavy Oil)
Other Manufacturing 11%
Oil and Gas Pipelines and Storage 7%
Wood Products 7%
Pulp and Paper 5%
Plastics and Rubber 5%
Chemicals 5%
Petroleum and Coal product Refining and Mfg.
Transportation Equipment Mfg.
Other (Except Manufacturing) 3%
Iron and Steel 1%
Aluminum 1%
Mining and Quarrying 1%
Waste Treatment and Disposal
Cement, Lime and Other Non-Metallic Minerals 0.4%
Electricity 0.5%
Water and Wastewater Systems
Metals (Except Aluminum and Iron and Steel)
Percentage of VOCs Air Releases by Province for 2019
Long Description
Percentage of VOC air releases by province for 2019
Province Percentage
Alberta 44%
Ontario 18%
Saskatchewan 13%
Quebec 10%
British Columbia
Manitoba 3.78%
Newfoundland and Labrador
Nova Scotia
New Brunswick
Northwest Territories
Prince Edward Island 0.08%
Yukon 0.01%
Nunavut 0.01%
Total Releases to Air of VOCs from 2010 to 2019 (tonnes)
Long Description
Total releases to air of VOCs from 2010 to 2019 (tonnes)
Province Percentage
2010 216,472
2011 204,994
2012 203,816
2013 214,124
2014 212,990
2015 203,515
2016 183,798
2017 196,361
2018 233,698
2019 241,660

Pollution in your neighbourhood

You can identify the facilities and pollutants in your community by exploring the various data products located on the NPRI webpage.

For further analysis, check out other NPRI maps and datasets. You can also use NPRI data to do your own analysis.

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