Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a group of chemicals that can both vaporize into air and dissolve in water. VOCs are in thousands of daily use products, including paint, varnish, wax, and various cleaning, degreasing, and cosmetic products. Exposure to VOC vapors can cause a variety of health effects.
VOC vapors are emitted into the air by dry cleaners, auto-body shops, painting and coating facilities, and gas engines. VOCs are also a common pollutant at sites in Minnesota when chemical spills or mishandling has contaminated soils. At these sites, VOCs can leach into groundwater and migrate to drinking-water supply wells. Once in groundwater, they can generate toxic vapors that move through soils and can get into buildings and degrade indoor air quality, a process called vapor intrusion [link to page].
Human health and environmental concerns
Exposure to VOC vapors can cause a variety of health effects, including eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches and loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system. Some VOCs are suspected or proven carcinogens.
VOCs in air pollution are also a concern because they contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone when they react with nitrogen oxides in the air. Learn more:
Monitoring, reporting, and regulations
VOCs are monitored as part of the air toxics monitoring network in Minnesota because of their role in forming ground-level ozone. Ozone is a criteria pollutant subject to National Ambient Air Quality Standards under the Clean Air Act. You can see monitoring data for 70 air pollutants, including individual volatile organic compounds, on our Air toxics data explorer.