Volatile organic compounds

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Organization: Health Canada or Public Health Agency of Canada

Cat: H144-93/2021E-PDF

ISBN: 978-0-660-40986-3

Pub: 210442

Published: 2022-03-29

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About volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) form a large group of chemicals commonly found in both indoor and outdoor air. They can affect air quality. While some VOCs give off distinctive odours at higher levels, they may be present even if you can’t smell them. Exposure to VOCs in indoor air may affect your health, depending on which VOCs are present, the level of VOCs present, and how long you are exposed.

Some common examples include:

Health effects

Short-term exposure to high levels of some Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) can cause fatigue:

  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • breathing problems
  • irritation of the:
    • eyes
    • nose
    • throat

Some people may be more sensitive, such as children, seniors, pregnant people, and people with existing health conditions, such as asthma, chronic pulmonary disease or bronchitis.

For most VOCs, levels found in indoor air in Canadian homes do not usually pose a significant health risk. For long-term exposure to low levels of VOCs, research is ongoing to better understand any health effects from these exposures.

Long-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs, however, may result in health effects.

For example, in industrial workers, exposure to high levels of some VOCs has been linked with increased cancer rates. These VOCs include:

  • benzene
  • formaldehyde

At the low levels typically found in homes, however, there is essentially no risk of developing cancer for both benzene and formaldehyde

Although the cancer risk for formaldehyde in homes is negligible, it can cause irritation if levels exceed Health Canada's Residential Indoor Air Quality for formaldehyde.

Indoor sources

VOCs can be emitted into indoor air from many sources, including:

  • infiltration from attached garages, such as from vehicle exhaust
  • cigarette smoke
  • candles and incense
  • cooking, especially frying
  • combustion sources such as improperly vented fireplaces, wood stoves, gas stoves and furnaces
  • composite wood products, such as some furnishings and flooring materials
  • building materials, such as:
    • paint
    • glues
    • varnish
  • household products, such as:
    • air fresheners
    • cleaning products

Reduce exposure in the home

You can reduce exposure to VOCs in your home by:

  • increasing ventilation
    • when possible use a range hood exhaust fan with outside venting when cooking
    • ensure proper ventilation to the outside during use of combustion appliances such as fireplaces, wood stoves, gas stoves and furnaces
    • open windows when outdoor air conditions are good
      • check the outdoor air quality in your community by visiting the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)
  • ensuring there is a good seal around any doors connecting the house to an attached garage
  • avoiding smoking indoors
  • choosing low-emission products when possible
    • some composite wood products, paints, varnishes and chemical cleaning products may emit fewer VOCs than others
    • store products properly
  • opening windows when using cleaning products, especially those with strong chemicals
    • read and follow label instructions of all cleaning products
  • opening the windows when using products, such as:
    • glues
    • paints
    • varnishes
    • adhesives
  • minimizing the use of scented products, such as plug-in or aerosol deodorizers (air fresheners)
    • these products can hide odours by producing VOCs

If there are people living in your home who are more sensitive, you should:

  • ensure they are outside the home during:
    • cleaning
    • renovations
    • the use of chemicals
  • monitor them for symptoms when they return, such as:
    • asthma
    • irritation
    • headaches
    • breathing difficulties

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