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NC Department of Health and Human Services
NC Division of Public Health
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Occupational & Environmental Epidemiology

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a class of chemicals that evaporate easily and contain carbon atoms. VOCs can be a problem in indoor and outdoor environments. VOCs can come from the manufacture or use of paints, solvents, building materials, pesticides, air fresheners, hobby supplies, dry-cleaned clothing, aerosol sprays and adhesives. Some common VOCs include formaldehyde, acetone and automotive gasoline.

Indoor air may contain several hundred different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some of these VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; or damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Exposure to some VOCs can cause cancer in animals; some VOCs are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Careful selection of products, increased ventilation, and carefully following label instructions can help reduce adverse health effects. Learn more about indoor environmental quality.

The chemical formaldehyde is one of the more common volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Formaldehyde can be found in many products including tobacco smoke, manufactured wood products such as particleboard and plywood used in structures or in cabinets and furniture, durable-press drapes and other permanent-press fabrics, adhesives, and hair-smoothing products. Formaldehyde is an irritant to the eyes, nose and throat, and can cause tearing of the eyes, coughing and bronchial spasms. In 2011, following rigorous scientific review, the National Toxicology Program 12th edition Report on Carcinogens changed the status of formaldehyde from "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" to the category "known to be a human carcinogen."

Volatile organic compounds are also a concern for private well owners. Private well owners should reqularly test their water for VOCs to ensure that it is safe to drink. See N.C. DPH water testing recommendations for North Carolina private well owners.

Staff in the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch administer the state's public health surveillance of occupational illnesses and injuries, including those caused by chemical exposures.

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