Volatile organic compounds

Find out about volatile organic compounds (VOCs), their sources and health risks.

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About volatile organic compounds

VOCs are a large group of chemicals that are present in indoor and outdoor air. Some have an odour while others do not.

Some common examples include:

Indoor sources of volatile organic compounds

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

  • vehicle exhaust
  • cigarette smoke
  • building materials, such as:
    • paint
    • glues
    • varnish
    • flooring materials
  • household products, such as:
    • air fresheners
    • cleaning products
  • off-gassing (the release of gases) from furnishings

Health effects of volatile organic compounds

Short-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs can cause:

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

Some people may be more sensitive, such as people with asthma.

Most people are not affected by short-term exposure to the low levels of VOCs typically found in homes. 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.

How to reduce exposure to volatile organic compounds in the home

You can reduce exposure to VOCs in your home by:

  • avoiding smoking indoors
  • choosing low-emission products when possible
    • some paints, varnishes and chemical cleaning products emit fewer VOCs than others
  • opening windows when using cleaning products, especially those with strong chemicals
    • read and follow label instructions
  • opening the windows during renovations to ensure good ventilation when using products, such as:
    • glues
    • paints
    • varnishes
    • adhesives
    • cleaning products
  • 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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