VOC Chemicals: The Danger is Inside the House

More than 5,000 tons of 33 potentially harmful chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, were released in California in 2020, according to a recent study. While the analysis focused on exposure in California, the same products are sold across the U.S., which means consumers are at risk nationwide.

The study underscores how people can be exposed to harmful toxins every day in their living environment. The findings point to the need for greater oversight of consumer chemical exposure, not just workplace dangers.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs lurk in a wide range of household products, leaving people unknowingly exposed to toxins in their own homes.

What Are VOCs?

VOCs are used in a variety of consumer goods, including paints, cosmetics, glues and adhesives, and cleaning products, among other items. VOCs are emitted as gases by thousands of products. Consumer goods that contain organic chemicals can release organic compounds while they’re being used, but they can also release them while they are stored. Potentially harmful VOCs are also found in insect repellents, laundry detergents and disinfectants.

The concentration of many VOCs is much higher indoors compared to outdoors. The EPA found that levels of roughly a dozen common organic pollutants were two to five times higher inside homes compared to outside.

How Are VOCs Harmful?

Exposure to VOCs is associated with a number of serious health problems, including:

  • Birth defects and developmental issues: Maternal exposure to VOCs has been linked to developmental problems in babies. According to a study published in ScienceDirect, prenatal exposure to certain VOCs heightens the risk of neurodevelopmental delays in children. Another study concluded that maternal exposure to VOCs indoors may increase the risk of a baby being born with congenital heart disease.
  • Cancer: Many VOCs – such as benzene and formaldehyde – are known to cause cancer. Several VOCs present in indoor air have been found to cause cancer in animal studies. Some VOCs emitted during oil and gas production are linked to an increased risk of childhood leukemia. Benzene is also associated with other types of blood cancers.
  • Other health problems: According to the American Lung Association, breathing VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and can cause damage to the central nervous system and other organs.

Which VOC Chemicals Are Most Concerning?

The study analyzing the 33 VOCs was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Researchers found more than 100 types of products contain VOCs that have been flagged by California’s Proposition 65 database, which requires businesses to provide warnings about significant exposures to certain chemicals. Of the 33 VOCs, researchers identified 11 chemicals as being especially concerning due to their widespread use in consumer and workplace products. The top 3 most common chemicals found include:

  • Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is the most prevalent VOC found in consumer products.
  • Methylene chloride, commonly found in paint strippers, can harm the eyes, liver, heart and skin and may cause cancer. It is found in a range of products, including nail polish, shampoo, makeup and other personal care products.
  • Benzene, another carcinogen, is the third most common VOC found in consumer products, according to the study. Benzene is found in antiperspirant sprays, detergents, plastics, and many other products. In 2021, Procter & Gamble recalled 32 aerosol hair care products “out of an abundance of caution.” A product review found “unexpected levels of benzene in the propellant that sprays the product out of the can.

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