Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a group of carbon-based chemicals that are emitted as gases. An EPA research study found levels of a dozen VOCs to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside. We can’t see VOCs but they are everywhere in our house, from building materials (paint, adhesives, carpets, composite wood products) to home and personal care products (air fresheners, cleaning supplies, and cosmetics).

Breathing in high-levels of VOCs for a short-period of time can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Chronic effects include increased risk of cancer, damages to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.


Formaldehyde is one of the most common VOCs in people’s homes and deserves some special attention. High levels of formaldehyde can cause irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat. The EPA has also identified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) that may increase the risk of leukemia and brain cancer. This colorless and highly flammable chemical is found in building materials and household products made out of pressed-wood products such as particleboard, plywood, and hard wood. It can come from adhesive materials (glue), varnishes, wallpaper, and the fireplace.


High levels of VOC can cause symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. If you experience these symptoms, contact a VOC contractor to inspect your home for improper ventilation.


The short answer with VOCs is to keep them out of your house or to minimize the amount that you use. If you are renovating, look for no- or low-VOC paints, adhesives, and floor treatments. But what does no- or low-VOC really mean?  First, it’s important to note that the EPA allows paints with zero-VOC labels to contain up to 5 grams of VOCs per liter g/L. For low-VOC paints, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) limits VOC content to 50 g/L for flat paint and 150 g/L for non-flat paint. Also make sure you buy certified or formaldehyde-free lumber products.

If you choose to use products with VOCs, limit the amount of products you purchase to how much you’ll actually use right away. And then get rid of the leftovers! Make sure non-empty containers are disposed of properly which may mean bringing it directly to a hazardous waste recycling center or back to the store you bought it from. And of course, when using these products, make sure the area is well ventilated and you are using the appropriate safety gear.

Behind the Walls
Innovation Center
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Cambridge, MA 02142