Long Term Effects of Volatile Organic Compounds (Benzene, Formaldehyde..)

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are substances made up of a combination of hydrogen and carbon atoms, and that vaporize at room temperature. They typically give off an odor when they do this, making it relatively easy to know when levels are too high.

But besides producing an unpleasant smell in the home, VOCs such as benzene can have a long-term effect on your health.

Knowing what VOCs are and how they can affect your health are important for limiting exposure, maintaining indoor air quality and reducing the risk of health problems. Another thing to do is to install an indoor air quality monitor in the home, as this will help detect too high VOC concentration which are posing a threat to health.


What Exactly Are VOCs?

Not all chemicals are VOCs, but all VOCs are chemicals. Some are naturally occuring, whereas others are man-made. Some of them are used directly in consumer products, such as methylene chloride, used in paint removers and solvents, or benzene, used as a component in gasoline, whereas others are used further up the chain of industrial production, either to clean, bond something together, dissolve, etc.

In the home, VOCs can be found in products such as cleaners, soaps, paints, polishes, mattresses, carpets, air fresheners and even drinking water. Some are also found in the surrounding environment, such as in the air surrounding roads and other high-traffic areas. As long as as there are cars around, there will be benzene in the air.

In fact, VOCs are released anytime something is burned, whether it be a cigarette, a candle or a gas stove.Formaldehyde concentrations are typically higher in older buildings. This is one of the most common toxins in the world, and it’s found in lacquers and other wood finishes that used to be in widespread use.

Avoiding VOCs

It should be clear that it’s nearly impossible to avoid exposure to VOCs. But this isn’t the goal. Instead, it’s important to figure out ways to limit exposure. The best things to do are:

  • Use natural products wherever possible, or look for those advertised as VOC-free (many paints nowadays are used without these harmful chemicals, or you can find many paint thinners that don’t use methylene chloride)

  • Keep the home well-ventilated, and when working with any of these chemicals, ensure even better airflow.

  • Avoid burning things in the home. A candle or two is not a big deal, but do not use grills, lamps or stoves that require propane or some other fuel inside the home, and always make sure the area where these devices are used is well-ventilated.

  • Limit plastic use, and never heat plastic above room temperature unless it is specifically made to do so.

  • Invest in a smart indoor air quality monitor to measure VOC concentrations and detect any problems before they become a danger to health.

The Effects of VOC Exposure

To understand the need to take volatile organic compounds seriously, it’s important to know the adverse health effects they can have.

Short-term exposure to can be detected from the presence of the following symptoms:

  • Irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract

  • Headaches

  • Dizziness

  • Visual disorders and memory impairment.


Think about being stuck in traffic for so long that you get a headache. That’s due to increased benzene exposure. Or if you feel light headed after painting in an enclosed area, know this is a physical response to higher than normal VOC exposure.

However, exposure to in high concentrations and for extended periods of time can have longer term health effects, such as:


  • Prolonged eye, nose and throat irritation

  • Chronic headaches as well as loss of coordination and chronic nausea

  • Liver, kidney and central nervous system damage

  • Some types of cancer. Cancer is caused by a confluence of factors, but there is evidence that over-exposure to some VOCs can increase the chances of contracting cancer.

Start Protecting Air Quality Now

Indoor air quality is the first step to good health. So much time is spent at home, it’s important to make sure the air is clean. A good place to start is to understand what VOCs are, where they are found and how to reduce exposure to them. To find out more about VOCs, check out some of these resources: