What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

You might not know it, but you have to deal with volatile organic compounds on a daily basis. Nearly every human has to deal with them because we are directly or indirectly exposed to them.

These compounds surround us, without us being aware of it, and they can have a negative influence on our health. As such, it is good to know exactly what volatile organic compounds are. It usually is easy to recognize volatile organic compounds. You can mostly recognize them because of their strong scent.

Even so, you cannot determine how much of these compounds are present in the air. That has to be measured with a special device. If you want to know more about this, you should read this article.

What are Volatile Organic Compounds?

Volatile organic compounds, usually abbreviated as VOC, are a collection of chemical compounds that evaporate easily when they get in contact with air on room temperature. This creates a vapor pressure of at least 0.01 kPa.

These compounds are released when petroleum products or other organic compounds evaporate, or when combustion is incomplete. As we mentioned earlier, these compounds usually have a strong smell and can cause odor nuisance.

Some examples of products that can release volatile organic compounds are fuel or gas, paints, ink, cleaning products, makeup, and other beauty products, air fresheners, insecticides, building materials, glues, agricultural pesticides, etc.

Are volatile organic compounds unhealthy?

Other than the unpleasant or irritating smell of these compounds, inhaling them could have negative consequences for your health. In the case of short exposure to high concentrations of volatile organic compounds, health complaints such as headaches, dizziness, numbness, palpitations, irritation of the nose, eyes, or respiratory tract, etc.

These complaints could disappear shortly after the exposure. However, long-term exposure could lead to persisting health complaints – or damages, such as lowered brain function.

Next to the fact that volatile organic compounds are dangerous for your health, the products that contain them are flammable. You can differentiate between the extent of flammability, namely: K0, K1, K2, and K3 liquids. The most dangerous among these are the products containing K0 liquids.

Due to the high volatility of these liquids, they have a higher chance of burning or exploding. You should always pay attention to the way you store these products. Always read the instructions on the packaging.

What are the sources of volatile organic compounds?

You probably think that the air in your house is much cleaner than the air outside. That is not always the case. Did you know that the air inside of your house can be up to five times more polluted than the air outside?

Keep in mind that we spend 90% of our time at home, at work, in a car, etc. We summed up some of the sources of volatile compounds above. Let’s take a closer look at these sources.

  • Fuels or gas: with their combustion, VOCs are released as well. This means they are also released when you’re cooking at home on your gas stove.
  • Makeup and other beauty products: this includes everything that has a strong scent. Even perfumes with a nice smell of course, because a nice smell does not necessarily mean a healthy smell. Some examples are nail polish, nail polish remover, perfume or body sprays, multiple cleansing gels or tonics, etc.
  • Paint: a newly painted house or office environment surely looks better, but it is not always healthy. Try paying attention to the environmental friendliness of the product. If the producer pays attention to this, it will probably not have a very strong smell as compared to other products. If you can, pick a water-based paint instead of an oil paint that smells much stronger.
  • Ink: how often are we working with copiers or printers? People working with printers or copiers a lot will often notice that the machine starts to have a special smell.
  • Cleaning products: almost everyone has experienced this. The usage of ammonium or bleach in a small, closed room immediately gives you dizziness, a headache, etc.
  • Air fresheners: how often do we use a nice scent with the intention of “freshening” the air inside our house. The thing is that we don’t know that the compounds that are released with this do more harm than good.
  • Insecticides: sometimes we use mosquito repellents or products that kill them to prevent ourselves from being bitten, but the released compounds are damaging to us as well. Furthermore, the smell is very unpleasant.
  • Building materials: think of cement, glue, filler, silicone, pressed wood, etc.
  • Pesticides: it is common knowledge that these products can be very harmful to your health. As such, it is important that you are physically protected against them before you start using them in your garden.

There are more sources of VOCs, e.g. the burning of candles, new furniture, a new car, etc. Even some plastic products such as bowls, flower pots, toys, etc. could be a source of VOC.

In short: everything with a strong scent has VOCs.

Some tips:

  • Your sense of smell is very important and immediately sends signals to your brain when something smells too strong. The moment your nose starts irritating, you can check your environment and find the source of the strong smell. However, less strong smells can be equally dangerous. Pay close attention to the reaction your nose gives when you perceive VOC in the air.
  • Regularly vent your house to allow fresh air to enter.
  • Buy a VOC-monitor that will regularly remember you to ventilate your house. You can easily do so by setting alarms.
  • Try to store all products with a strong scent, such as fuels, paints, and cleaning products in a separate room outside of the house.
  • Only purchase these products when they are highly necessary and try to prevent stocking them.
  • Become more aware and choose environmentally friendly products more often.
  • Volatile organic compounds can also end up in dust. Clean your house regularly by simply dusting everything with a wet cloth. In case you do want to work with cleaning products, use as little cleaning products with a strong scent as possible.

Norm values for volatile organic compounds

The government determines norm values for measuring the air quality, usually expressed in mg/m3 or ppm (parts per million). It’s good to have a device that does not only measure volatile organic compounds but other substances such as particulates, formaldehyde, CO2, etc.

A value of 25  mg/m3 or more could lead to severe, lasting health complaints.

Table of norm values for VOC:

Air quality VOC value
Very good < 0,3 mg/m³
Good 0,3 – 1,0 mg/m³
Moderate 1,0 – 3,0 mg/m³
Bad 3,0 – 10,0 mg/m³
Very bad > 10,0 mg/m³

What is the difference between VOC and formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde, as well as VOC, belongs to the group of the most dangerous substances that could be present in the air. This substance can be found in chipboard material, paints, or building materials, and is present in almost every house.

A high concentration of formaldehyde (HCHO) could lead to irritation or inflammation of the mucous membranes. If you are sensitive and already have respiratory tract issues, even low concentrations of this substance could lead to health complaints.

Formaldehyde is one of the substances that is measured when people are speaking of VOC. In measuring VOC, all volatile organic compounds are measured. As such, Formaldehyde is a part of VOC.

How can you measure volatile organic compounds?

To measure the air quality of a room inside, special devices are available that could indicate how much of a certain substance is present in the air. Such a device certainly comes in handy in rooms where one has to be for longer periods of time during the day.

You could think of your house, office, school, daycare, retirement home, etc. A golden rule is that there should be clean air in any room if one wishes to live a healthy life. In principle, this is a basic “ingredient” for a healthy lifestyle.

Nowadays we have devices that not only measure the amount of VOC, but also the formaldehyde values (HCHO). As such, you could use 1 device to measure 2 important and dangerous substances.

Devices to measure all volatile organic compounds (VOC) also exist. You could think of glycol, toluene, benzene, and terpenes. You could buy such a device, but you could also rent one. Furthermore, there are companies that specialize in measuring the air quality of your house or work environment.