What Are Volatile Organic Compounds, and How Do They Affect Humans?

Humans are surrounded by an array of chemicals, both natural and synthetic, in their daily lives. While many chemicals provide significant benefits and comforts, an increasing body of research highlights the potential risks they pose to human health.

The most recent statistics from the World Health Organization tell us that chemical exposure contributed to an estimated 2 million deaths in 2019.

Among the culprits, volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, have emerged as one of the main hazards. In this article, we will explore their dangers and how they affect the human body.

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

VOCs refer to a group of chemicals that contain carbon atoms in their molecular structure. Hence, the term “organic.”

VOCs are released from various sources, both natural and human-made. VOCs are present in a wide range of products:

  • Solvents
  • Paints
  • Varnishes
  • Cleaning agents
  • Adhesives
  • Fuels
  • Air fresheners
  • Personal care items

Additionally, VOCs are released by certain industrial processes, such as manufacturing and chemical production.

What Are The Side Effects of VOCs on Human Health?

Source: foobot.io

Exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can have various adverse effects on human health, both in the short term and the long term. Of course, the exact side effects depend on factors such as concentration, duration of exposure, individual susceptibility, and the presence of other pollutants.

Vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing health conditions, are usually more susceptible to the adverse effects of VOC exposure. Here are some of the most common side effects that these chemicals are responsible for.

1. Various Types of Cancers

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, and specific VOCs have been classified as known or suspected carcinogens.

One notable example highlighting the cancer-causing potential of VOCs was the Camp Lejeune water contamination disaster.

Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina, experienced significant water contamination from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The primary sources of contamination were VOCs, particularly trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), which were both used in various industrial activities. These VOCs were used during degreasing and dry-cleaning activities on or near the base.

Over several decades, military personnel, their families, and civilian employees were exposed to VOC-contaminated water.

The investigations and studies that were conducted revealed alarming health consequences, particularly the higher incidence of various cancers among those exposed.

The cancers associated with the Camp Lejeune contamination included kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and bladder cancer. To this day, we are still seeing new Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuit cases being filed.

TorHoerman Law, in their recent update, draw attention to the settlement estimate by the Department of Veteran Affairs. It appears that $21 billion is the figure that the U.S. government will have to spend to address the claims from over 1 million affected individuals.

2. Respiratory Issues

Source: narayanahealth.org

VOCs can irritate the respiratory system, leading to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness. However, these symptoms can also get even more severe.

People with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma, may experience worsening symptoms when exposed to VOCs. Some individuals may also be sensitive or allergic to certain VOCs, leading to respiratory allergic reactions.

In cases of high-level or prolonged exposure to certain VOCs, severe respiratory distress can occur. This may manifest as:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • A feeling of suffocation

Long-term exposure to certain VOCs, such as formaldehyde, often leads to decreased lung capacity and a decline in overall respiratory health.

3. Organ Damage

VOCs, such as trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), and vinyl chloride, can cause liver damage when individuals are exposed to them through inhalation, ingestion, or dermal contact.

Prolonged exposure to VOCs has also been linked to liver toxicity, inflammation, and the development of other liver diseases.

In addition, benzene, styrene, and toluene, all have neurotoxic effects and can affect the central nervous system and the brain. These compounds can cross the blood-brain barrier and lead to:

  • Neurobehavioral changes
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Memory problems
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

Studies have also suggested that certain VOCs, such as formaldehyde and benzene, may be responsible for disturbances in heart rate and blood pressure. When workers are forced to deal with these chemicals every day, the devastating consequences are not surprising.

Tips for Minimizing VOC Exposure at Home

Source: foobot.io

Minimizing volatile organic compounds exposure at home is crucial for maintaining a healthier indoor environment. Here are some effective tips to achieve this:

Firstly, opt for low-VOC or VOC-free products when purchasing household items such as paints, cleaning supplies, and furniture. These products emit fewer harmful compounds, reducing indoor air pollution. Additionally, proper ventilation plays a vital role. Open windows and use exhaust fans in areas where VOC-emitting products are used to allow fresh air to circulate and dilute any volatile organic compounds present.

Avoid smoking indoors, as cigarette smoke contains VOCs that significantly contribute to poor indoor air quality. Safely store chemicals and VOC-emitting products in sealed containers in well-ventilated areas such as garages. Consider using natural alternatives for cleaning and personal care products to reduce the need for VOC-containing products.

Before bringing new items into your home, air them out in a well-ventilated area to allow any VOCs to dissipate. Maintain a clean living environment to remove dust and contaminants that can trap VOCs. When renovating or building, choose natural building materials with lower volatile organic compounds emissions.

Be cautious with pesticides and opt for natural pest control methods instead. Monitor indoor humidity levels and use dehumidifiers or air conditioners to maintain a comfortable and dry environment. Be mindful of fragrances, as many scented products contain VOCs. Finally, stay informed about potential volatile organic compounds sources and guidelines for reducing exposure.


Even with increasing awareness, VOCs continue to affect people in several ways to this day. The ease with which contamination can occur makes it particularly dangerous to the public. Unfortunately, carelessness and disregard for safety end up affecting not just individuals but entire families and communities at large.