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Volatile Organic CompoundsVolatile Organic Compounds

The Basics

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that evaporate from a solid or liquid form at room temperature. Some VOCs exist naturally in the environment. Others are manufactured (made by people) and put into things that we use every day.

When VOCs evaporate into the air, they become invisible, so you can’t see them. Many VOCs also have no odor (smell). That makes it easy to breathe them in without knowing it.   

The word “volatile” means unstable and possibly dangerous. That word gives you a clue about what VOCs are like — and why we need to be careful with them.

What products might have VOCs in them?

Many things that we use at home, school, and work contain VOCs. These include:

  • Paint
  • Glue
  • Markers
  • Hair spray
  • Air fresheners
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Fuels
How can people be exposed to VOCs?

When someone uses a product with VOCs, the VOCs evaporate and stay in the air. This usually happens inside a room or building, because there’s less ventilation (air flow) than outside.

In other words, VOCs can affect indoor air quality. When we say “indoor air quality,” we’re usually talking about how the air you breathe when you’re inside might affect your health. And since most of us spend a lot of time indoors, the quality of that air matters.

You can also get sick by swallowing or touching VOCs. That’s why things such as cleaning supplies have warning labels — and why it’s important to read product warnings.

How can VOCs affect my health?

VOCs can make you sick. Someone who’s been poisoned by a VOC could develop:

  • Eye, nose, or throat problems
  • Headaches
  • Liver or kidney damage
  • Damage to the central nervous system (the system that includes the brain and spinal chord)

Some VOCs can also cause cancer if people are exposed to them for a long period of time.

If you’re worried your health has been affected by VOCs, talk with your doctor at your next checkup. If you think someone has been poisoned by VOCs, call the Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222 right away.


Did you know ?

VOCs are chemicals that contribute to the “greenhouse effect” that is responsible for warming the earth.

Learn More

Explore the links below to learn more about VOCs, including what you can do to protect yourself — and what experts are doing to keep you safe.

Read About It Read About It

Volatile Organic Compounds (Tox Town - National Library of Medicine) - Information about volatile organic compounds, including links to Medline Plus, related topics, and where they can be found.

Volatile Organic Compounds in Commonly Used Products (New York State Department of Health) - Describes how volatile organic compounds can get into indoor air and the effect they can have on human health.

Videos Videos

Impact of Pollutants on Snow and Ice (Exploratorium of San Francisco) - Video about research adventures studying the impact pollutants have on snow and ice.

For Teachers For Teachers

Chemicals and Human Health (Southwest Environmental Health Science Center, University of Arizona) - Interactive website covering toxicology, the effects of metals on kidneys, and basic lung anatomy and function.