Volatile organic compounds

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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.

Health effects of VOCs

For most VOCs, levels found in indoor air in Canadian homes do not usually pose a significant health risk.

Exposure to some VOCs can cause:

  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • breathing problems
  • irritation of the eyes, nose and throat

Who is at greatest risk

  • Children
  • Seniors
  • Pregnant people
  • People with existing health conditions, such as asthma, chronic pulmonary disease or bronchitis

Indoor sources

VOCs can get into indoor air from many sources, including:

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

Reducing exposure to VOCs in your 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
    • when possible, use mechanical ventilation such as a properly maintained HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system
  • 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
  • ensuring there is a good seal around any doors connecting the house to an attached garage
  • increase ventilation when using cleaning products
    • read and follow label instructions of all cleaning products
  • increase ventilation when using products, such as:
    • glues
    • paints
    • varnishes
    • adhesives
  • minimizing the use of scented products, such as plug-in or aerosol deodorizers (air fresheners)
For more information on VOCs, please visit the Health Canada website or contact us at air@hc-sc.gc.ca

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