The dangerous effects of industrial chemicals on the environment and our health are becoming more serious. Some of these chemical toxins are hiding in places you may not be aware of. Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are the third of five major groups of environmental toxins that are having a disastrous effect on our health and our global environment.  Read on to learn about how we are exposed, how they affect our health, and steps to reduce exposure to this group of toxins.


What are VOC’s?

Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are carbon molecules that easily become vapors or gases. They are used in industrial chemicals, gasoline additives (MBTE), chlorination in water treatment plants (chloroform), paint thinners, pesticides, and dry cleaning agents. In the home VOC’s are found in paints, varnishes, waxes, cleaning and disinfecting products, cosmetics, and glues. The chemical smell of new vinyl or carpet is from toxic VOC’s becoming airborne and entering you lungs when you smell or breathe them in.


How am I exposed to VOC’s?

There are so many VOC compounds and many ways to be exposed, especially in manufacturing plants.  The most common home exposure is from every form of tobacco smoke.  Here are some of the most widely used VOC’s and where your greatest exposures may be:

  • Acetone: fingernail polish remover, tobacco smoke, rubbing alcohol, cleaners, paints, glues, rubber cement
  • Benzene: air, water, and soil, tobacco smoke, gasoline, paint, glue
  • Formaldehyde: air pollution, tobacco smoke, smoke from open flames, kerosene heaters, cosmetics, hospitals, carpets, permanent press fabrics, a human carcinogen.
  • Gasoline: breathing fumes at or near a gas station
  • Polystyrene: styrofoam, tobacco smoke, printer ink cartridges, copier toners
  • PERC/TCE: used in dry cleaning process on clothes


How do they damage health?

  Symptoms from exposure include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea. VOC’s are known to damage the liver, kidneys, reproductive system, and the central nervous system. Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans, like PERC and formaldehyde.


What can I do?

If something has a “chemical” odor, it’s probably a VOC.  Get rid of it, or if you don’t want to or can’t, ventilate, ventilate, ventilate!  If possible, spray or wipe the item with a 50% solution of white distilled vinegar several times a day.  Run an air purifier for as long as you can smell the chemical, or better yet, run it all the time! 

Minimize the number of “dry clean only” clothes, or find a dry cleaner company that does not use PERC.

Stop smoking or stay away from breathing in tobacco smoke in any form, including hookahs and e-cigarettes.

If you’re going to paint inside your home, buy low-VOC or no-VOC paint.



ATSDR (2014, May). Toxic Substances Portal. Toxicological Profiles. Retrieved from

Crinnion, W. (2010). Clean, Green & Lean: Drop the weight in 30 days. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Krohn, J. and F. Taylor (2000). Natural Detoxification. 2nd ed. Vancouver: Hartley and Marks Publishers Inc.

Stockholm Convention, (2008). What are POP’s? Retrieved from