What Are the Sources of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Harmful aromatic hydrocarbons, are chemicals that release into the air at room temperature. Increased VOC emissions can lead to unhealthy amounts of these toxins in the air, creating poor air quality that can have a negative effect on health.

These organic chemicals are found nearly everywhere. They are a part of many of the products used by millions of people on a daily basis, and they are also byproducts of other actions that simply cannot be avoided.

As such, it’s crucial to maintain VOC levels at the threshold limits established by the relevant government department. Since they’re volatile, keeping VOC concentrations to a minimum through careful monitoring is difficult, but it’s the only way to ensure safe concentration of these chemicals in the home.

Here are some of the different sources of emission:

Toxins in the Home

Many of the items used on a daily basis in the home contain harmful chemicals. When using these products, it’s important to keep the area as well-ventilated as possible. Furthermore, it’s good to search for alternatives that do not use these chemicals, as this prevents the emission of these toxins into the air.

Another good thing to do is to install an indoor home air quality monitor. This will allow you to measure concentrations of different chemicals, including other harmful substances, such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Common sources of these organic compounds  in the home are:

  • Paint

  • Furniture polish and other wood finishing products

  • Cleaners, including soaps and laundry detergents

  • Solvents and thinners, e.g. nail polish remover with acetone or paint thinner.

  • Aerosols, such as air fresheners and other cleaners

  • Smoke from burning stoves or candle, as well as cigarettes.


VOCs Outside of the Home

While these chemicals tend to build up in larger amounts inside the home, largely because there is more space for them to concentrate, it’s quite possible to find these toxins elsewhere in the world. And they can often be equally as dangerous.

If it feels like any building or facility is overly-exposed to these harmful chemicals, notify the owners, or the authorities (such as the local public health department), so that tests can be done and measures can be taken to remove these toxins from the air.

Some places where harmful chemicals can be encountered outside the home include:

  • Traffic and areas with lots of cars. The combustion of gasoline gives off some harmful chemicals. When stuck in traffic, make sure to use the car’s air filtration system and keep the windows rolled up.

  • Factories and other industrial buildings. Living near a facility that makes products having to do with plastics or petroleum, or that is involved in any form of large scale industry, is likely emitting high amounts of toxins into the air, and maybe even the water. Depending on proximity to the area, it may be a good idea to test air and water quality to make sure this facility is not making homes and other buildings in the area unsafe.

  • Any type of trash or recycling facility. Burning enhances the volatility of these chemicals, increasing emission rates. So concentrations of toxic chemicals are likely to be higher in areas where incineraton takes place.

VOCs in Nature

Some of these toxins occur naturally. Knowing how they come about is important to avoiding overexposure. Here are some of the most common naturally-occuring sources of harmful organics:

  • Cattle farms. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases out there, and one of the major sources of emission is cow farms; manure is a particularly volatile source of this organic compound.

  • Plants. Many plants actually give off harmful chemicals as well as absorb them. The reason some plants give off a stronger odor than others is because of the presence of VOCs

  • Anything burning. Whether it be forest fires or smoldering volcanoes, if something is burning, then there’s a good chance there are harmful chemicals in the air.

The good news about naturally-occurring VOCs is that they tend to exist outdoors where ventilation is more than adequate, meaning these toxins will likely never accumulate in significant enough quantities to cause health problems. But it is still smart to understand where they come from so that they can be avoided wherever possible.  

For more information about these chemicals, where they’re found and how to get rid of them, here are some useful resources: