The Unit of Measure of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Awareness of how quantities of harmful chemicals are measured is vital to understanding in what doses they become lethal. The two most commonly used methods for VOC statistical analysis are Flame Ionisation Detection and Photo Ionisation Detection. Both methods measure the number of chemicals in the air on the assumption that most organic vapors produce positively charged carbon ions when they combust(1). However, the easiest way to detect concentrations of compounds is with a smart indoor air quality monitor.

What units are used to measure dangerous chemicals?

Usually, molecular structures are measured in either parts per billion (ppb), parts per million (ppm), or as micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) (2). Parts per million is perhaps the most commonly used. These systems of units are used to compare the substance against its Threshold Limit Value (TLV), which is the limit someone can be exposed to such chemicals daily without adverse effects(3).

It should be mentioned that not all organic compounds are volatile chemicals. Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, the first of which being dangerous in large concentrations, are not considered VOCs(4). There are, however, a number of highly dangerous organic chemicals everyone should be aware of:


  1. Acetone - The most famous of organic solvents, can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, and nose. Additional effects can include a faster pulse, headaches and dizziness, nausea and vomiting, a shorter menstrual cycle in women, and the possibility of passing out(6).

  2. Benzene - drowsiness and dizziness, confusion, headaches, unconsciousness. When exposed for long periods of time adverse effects can include a decrease in red blood cells(7).

  3. Toluene - can affect the nervous system in a number of ways. In the most serious of incidences, it can affect the kidneys, liver, and can cause retardation in unborn babies(8).

  4. Formaldehyde - burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, skin irritation, coughing and wheezing, and watery eyes. Formaldehyde has also been linked by some studies to myeloid leukemia(9).


When measuring organic emissions indoors and outdoors, it is crucial to look for any high quantities of the above.

What other dangerous chemicals should people test for?

As mentioned earlier, there are other types of harmful chemicals that are damaging to our health. However, they should not be confused with each other. A particular emphasis should be placed on the difference between hydrocarbons and other VOCs. Despite being similarly defined, they should not be equated with each other(10). Not all hydrocarbons are VOCs, however, some well-known hydrocarbons, such as benzene and toluene, are(11).

It is also useful to have an understanding of semi-volatile organic compounds. These substances usually have a higher boiling point and have a heavier molecular weight. Because of this, they tend to be found on surfaces.

Harmful emissions are particularly common in building materials and it is advised to frequently test building sites for concentrations of chemicals, such as methylene chloride, for the environmental protection of workers.

Simple ways to improve indoor air quality

There are many ways people can improve the indoor air quality of their homes and workplaces.

  • To improve environmental protection, a home air quality monitor can be used to detect high VOC concentration. Some models like Foobot, can inform about the atmospheric environment too.

  • Before purchasing new products for home improvements or new furniture, consult the EPA list of VOCs. By knowing what chemical emissions they may emit, you can ensure the protection of your atmospheric environment by avoiding them or purchasing products that are less harmful.

  • Additionally, developing an understanding of the main sources of nitrogen oxides and VOC concentrations can help people avoid harmful emissions in urban areas, not just at home.


By understanding the different types of different atmospheric substances and other dangerous chemicals at home and in the workplace, it is possible to measure them effectively and take action to reduce their impact on our health and create a cleaner environment.