Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are substances that contain carbon and evaporate (becomes a vapor) or “off-gases” at room temperature. Some examples of VOCs include benzene, methylene chloride, hexane, toluene, trichloroethane, styrene, heptane, and perchloroethylene.
VOCs are widely used in household and commercial products including some cleansers, disinfectants, waxes, glues, cosmetics, dry cleaning products, paints, varnishes, and preservatives. Gasoline, kerosene, and other fuels as well as cigarette smoke and pesticides contain VOCs.
Several building and household materials may be sources of VOCs. New carpeting, backing, and adhesives; draperies; wood products that use certain glues, finishes, and waxes in the manufacturing process; vinyl type flooring; and wall coverings may all release VOCs into the air.
Health Effects of Exposure to VOCs
The ability of VOCs to cause health effects varies greatly. As with other chemicals, the effects of VOC exposure depend on several factors including the type, the amount, and the length of time a person is exposed.
Exposure to elevated levels of VOCs may cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. Headaches, nausea, and nerve problems can also occur. Some people do not appear to have any kind of reaction to fairly “low” amounts of VOCs, while other people are fairly sensitive.
Studies of animals have shown that breathing some types of VOCs over a long period of time can increase the risk of cancer.