Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include a variety of chemical gases emitted from solid objects or liquids. Thousands of common, every-day-use household products contain VOCs, including paint, varnish, wax, and various cleaning, degreasing, and cosmetic products. Burning fossil fuels also results in the release of VOCs into the atmosphere.

Common emissions sources of VOCs include dry cleaners; auto body shops; cars, trucks, and buses; lawn mowers and other landscaping equipment; and industrial painting and coating operations. Natural processes, like plant and animal respiration and organic decomposition, also release VOCs into the atmosphere.

VOCs are an important pollutant because of their contribution to the formation of ground-level ozone. When VOCs are released into the atmosphere, they react with nitrogen oxides (NOx) to create ozone molecules. UV radiation from the sun speeds up the reaction, which is why ground-level ozone production is higher on hot, sunny days. Ground-level ozone can have many impacts on human health, and is the key pollutant that causes smog.

Health impacts of VOCs

VOCs play a pivotal role in the creation of ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and can aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, including bronchitis. Exposure to high levels of ground-level ozone can increase the risk of premature death in individuals already suffering from heart or lung disease. Children, whose lungs are still forming and many of whom spend a large amount of time outdoors, are at particular risk under high ozone concentrations.

Exposure to VOCs themselves can cause a variety of health effects, including irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat; headaches and the loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system. Some VOCs are suspected or proven carcinogens.

For additional information about the health impacts of air pollution in Minnesota, you can check out our most recent air quality report, or visit the Air quality and health webpage. You can also sign up for air quality alerts and forecasts, and check out current air quality.

Air quality standards that help protect us from adverse effects of VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are monitored as part of the Air Toxics monitoring network in Minnesota because of their significant contribution to the formation of ground-level ozone. There are not currently any federal standards or monitoring requirements for any air toxics, but there is for ozone. In 2015, the EPA reviewed the science related to the health and environmental impacts of ozone and revised the national air quality standards to reflect the most up-to-date information. The level of both the current primary and secondary eight-hour standards for ozone is 0.070 ppm (70 ppb).

There are 19 VOC monitor sites across the state, predominantly in the Twin Cities metro area, that track 55 different pollutants. At least one VOC monitor is used to collect data at Community Air Monitoring Project (CAMP) sites, which are placed in communities of low income or communities of color that may be disproportionately impacted by traffic and industrial pollution sources. The 2017 monitor is in the Bottineau/Marshall Terrace neighborhood.

The MPCA monitors for a variety of compounds in order to understand potential risks to Minnesota citizens and to track reductions in emissions and concentrations. Visit our air toxics webpage for more information on air toxics in Minnesota.

For more information on which VOCs are being tracked in Minnesota, or to find out where monitoring is taking place, you can read our annual Air Monitoring Network Plan or visit our interactive Air Toxics Data Explorer.