What Are VOCs?

Not too long ago our focus was on outdoor air pollution. However, various studies have shown that indoor air quality can be much worse; and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are common contributors to this. Here’s what you need to know about these pollutants.

What is a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)?

A volatile organic compound is a chemical containing carbon that becomes a gas at room temperature. They are found in plastics, personal care products, paints and solvents. Newer items emit, VOCs at a higher rate. This is where we get the “new car” smell and other scents after a renovation or furniture replacement.

Common VOCs & Associated Risks

Because VOCs are emitted slowly and have health effects from long term exposure, research is ongoing. The list is long, but here are three common VOCs and their health impacts.

  • Benzene has a sweet odor and is very flammable. It occurs in nature and is commonly used in the manufacturing processes of plastics, resins, fibers, lubricants, rubber, drugs, detergents and dyes. Due to its expansive use, it is one of the highest produced chemicals in the United States. Unfortunately, benzene is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) and affects the immune and nervous systems.
  • Formaldehyde is a pungent chemical and is used for fertilizers, paper production, some resins and as a preservative in cosmetics, certain foods, antiseptics and medication. It is also produced in small amounts by the human body, but too much exposure can lead to cancer. In addition, it affects the lungs, skin, immune system and digestive system.
  • Acetone is present in the environment and is produced from manufactured processes. It is used for plastic, fibers, drugs and to dissolve substances. This ability to dissolve makes it useful as a nail polish remover, for which it is commonly known. It also occurs in the break down of body fat, but excess exposure affects the blood and nervous systems.

Just a few common sources of VOCs include cigarettes, paint, glue, furniture polish, air fresheners, disinfectants, detergents, and craft supplies.

colorful house paint

How to Minimize Exposure to VOCs

The best way to reduce exposure is through increased ventilation which removes contaminated air and replaces it with fresh outside air. Opening windows more frequently in mild weather is one way to reduce VOC buildup, and is especially recommended while known VOC sources are in use – such as while smoking, painting or wall-papering walls, staining or polishing furniture, laying carpet or flooring, painting one’s nails, or doing some craft projects.

For many of these sources of VOCs, there are alternative options, which contain no, or much lower levels of contamination. These options might be more difficult to find or use, or come at a higher cost. But depending on the level of ventilation in your space, the amount of exposure to the chemicals you expect to have, and other health factors, it might be worth the extra effort or cost.

Your HVAC system should be optimized to provide enough ventilation through exhaust and fresh air supply that is filtered and conditioned. Without this, the buildup of VOCs can have detrimental effects on your family’s health.


If you’re concerned about VOCs and want to improve the air quality in your home, call TriState Home Services at (301) 969-9353 or contact us online. We can help with your ventilation system to keep your family healthy.


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