Most Dangerous Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Many people consider their homes as the safest place in the world. Yet this isn’t always the case. Poor air quality, caused by any number of pollutants, can have adverse health effects that can dramatically affect the quality of life.

Some of the most common pollutants found in the home are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are organic chemicals containing carbon, excluding carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, among others, that vaporize at room temperature. In high concentrations, VOCs can be dangerous to human health when they enter the lung or touch the skin.

To maintain good indoor air quality (IAQ), it’s important to understand what volatile organic compounds are, the health problems they can cause and how to measure them.

The Dangers of Volatile Organic Compounds

Excess VOCs in the home can be very harmful to the health of any residents. Overexposure to VOC emissions can lead to respiratory problems and cause lung damage, but other issues that can result from exposure to excessive chemical emissions include :


  • Eyes, nose and throat irritation

  • Headaches, loss of coordination and nausea

  • Liver, kidney, lung and central nervous system damage

  • Fatigue

  • Dizziness


Furthermore, VOCs have been found to cause cancer in animals, particularly in the lungs. And it’s suspected they may have the same effects in humans, although clinical studies have yet to clearly define the link.

Volatile Organic Compounds In the Home

Somewhat surprisingly, VOCs tends to be more prominent inside the home than outside. In fact, it’s not uncommon for VOC concentrations inside the home to be ten times higher than outside the home due to confinement.

The presence of vo  latile organic gas can dramatically affect indoor air quality (IAQ). To prevent these organic chemicals from reaching levels that can cause health problems, it’s smart to install an IAQ monitor that can track voc concentrations and alert residents of a problem before it becomes too serious.  

Where are  Volatile Organic Compounds Found?

Because of the potential health problems the can cause, it’s best to avoid exposure to VOCs as much as possible. Yet this is easier said than done, since VOCs are inhaled, putting your lungs in great danger.

As a result, it’s important to know which products contain these toxic chemicals so that their use can be limited and IAQ can be preserved.

There are many different volatile organic compounds out there, and it’s nearly impossible to avoid them all. However, some are more toxic than others. Here are some of the most widely-used VOCs, the products they are found in and how to avoid them:


Traditionally, acetone was used in nail polish removers, and it can also be found in furniture polish and wallpaper. But nowadays, acetone-free nail polish is common, and there are several water-based furniture polishes on the market, making it easy to eliminate this VOC from the home.


This particular substance is found in things that smoke, e.g. barbecues, burning candles, stoves and cigarettes. The obvious ways to avoid butanal is to not smoke, something that is always good for the lungs, and always use grills and camping stoves outside. There are beeswax, soy-based and cotton-wicked candles available as well, all of which have minimal amounts or no butanal in them, helping to keep VOC exposure low.

Carbon Disulfide

This particular VOC is found in chlorinated tap water, and the best way to avoid it is to use a charcoal or carbon-filtration system for your water. Or, if this is not possible, buy and drink only bottled water.


Many people are used to putting mothballs and other deodorizers in their clothes when storing them for extended periods of time, but this is the most common source of dichlorobenzene. To avoid exposure to this chemical, consider using cedar chips instead of chemical products, or airtight containers and garment bags will work well, too.


Found in glass cleaners, dishwasher detergents, alcoholic beverages and laundry detergents, ethanol is difficult to avoid. As a result, the best way to avoid exposure to this chemical is to open windows and doors when using these products. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it will help keep IAQ at a safe level and prevent the occurrence of respiratory problems.


Found in many molded plastics as well as finishing products such as lacquer, formaldehyde is one of the most common VOCs out there. The best solution is to limit exposure to plastics, and when this is impossible, make sure to use only BPA-free plastic. Furthermore, plant-based finishes and many polyurethanes are free of toxins, so consider using these products instead of lacquers and other harmful finishes.


These are present mostly in soaps and laundry detergents, thus making them common in most people’s daily lives. To try and limit exposure to terpenes, consider using natural or citrus-based products that do not contain this harmful substance.


Prevalent mostly in paints, those involved in DIY projects will likely be exposed to toluene at some point. However, not all paints contain this harmful organic chemical, so check the label before buying. If it does, make sure to open doors and windows in the room where paint is being applied to prevent IAQ from becoming poor and threatening the lung health of those in the area.


This one is actually not in the home, but it is still common. It is emitted from the tailpipes of idling cars, so when stuck in traffic, make sure all the car windows are rolled up, and if the car is left running, make sure it is not in an enclosed space, such as the garage.

Methylene Chloride

This VOC is found in paint removers, aerosol solvents and chemical fire extinguishers. It is also found in manufactured steroids, antibiotics and vitamins. Be sure to check ingredients lists before purchasing one of these products to be sure it does not contain this potentially harmful chemical.


Staying Safe from VOCs in the Home

In truth, it’s almost impossible to completely avoid VOCs.To minimize health problems, remember that VOCs are everywhere Nearly all organic compounds can be volatile, particularly hydrocarbons and many of the materials commonly used in construction. Concentrations of these chemicals are higher in the home, so make sure to use products with low levels of these chemicals, and also to keep the home well-ventilated. Doing so will help keep friends and family, and their lungs, safe from VOCs and other harmful substances.