What is a VOC?

B. Turner

A volatile organic compound (VOC) is any carbon-based compound that will vaporize at standard room temperatures. There are millions of organic compounds that fall into this category, with methane, formaldehyde and acetone among the most prevalent and well-known VOCs. These compounds are produced through natural biological processes as well as through chemical reactions in manufacturing and industry. The term VOC may be defined differently depending on the country or region, with some agencies using very broad classification systems and others focusing only on the most common VOCs.

Gasoline contains VOCs.
Gasoline contains VOCs.

Volatile organic compounds may be found in products such as gasoline, refrigerants, adhesives and solvents. When a VOC is exposed to the air at room temperature, it undergoes a chemical reaction that leads to a process known as offgassing. During offgassing, substances within the VOC are released into the atmosphere in the form of a gas. This gas can often have adverse effects on the environment, and has been linked to increased greenhouse gas levels, smog, and ozone depletion.

Ozone is created when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from burning fossil fuels react with oxygen in the atmosphere.
Ozone is created when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from burning fossil fuels react with oxygen in the atmosphere.

While VOC offgassing is a problem for the environment, it can have an even greater effect on the air quality within a building. Most common building materials, including paints, stains, sealants, flooring, furniture, and cabinets contain VOCs. Because of the high VOC content within a building, the air quality inside is often two to five times as bad indoors as it is outside. For a newly constructed space, the air quality indoors can be up to 1,000 times as bad as it is outdoors. This is due to the relatively high VOC concentrations found in new products that are just beginning the offgassing process.

High levels of VOC concentration have been linked to respiratory conditions, asthma, and other illnesses. This is particularly a problem for children or people with compromised immune systems. The term “sick building syndrome” is often used to describe a building with poor indoor air quality, much of which can be attributed to high VOC concentration levels.

As the green building movement grows, more and more manufacturers are reducing or eliminating VOCs from their products. Choose products labeled “VOC Free” to help minimize your exposure to these compounds. When you have no choice but to purchase products containing VOCs, choose smaller containers that you can dispose of after one use. Even VOCs in a sealed can or bottle can off-gas through the walls of the container. Finally, invest in a quality ventilation system to help remove unhealthy air from the home and replace it with fresh air from outdoors.

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