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Sam Holson

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23 May 2019

What is a volatile organic compound (VOC)?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include a wide range of both natural and synthetic substances. VOCs are chemical compounds – mixtures of more than one element – where one of the elements is carbon. They are described as volatile because they evaporate easily, releasing molecules into the atmosphere. VOCs can be detected by specialised VOC detectors utilising photoionsation detection (PID) technology.


VOCs are present in everyday life and can be harmless, some however, are not and can be hazardous to health and t

he environment. Solvents used in paints and adhesives, and in cleaning products, are often VOCs. The distinctive smell of some new plastics is the result of the ‘outgassing’ or release of volatile organic compounds to the atmosphere. Fuels including diesel, petrol, gasoline, heating oil, and aviation fuel are VOCs.

These and other potentially hazardous volatile organic compounds including benzene, toluene, ethylene, xylene, and formaldehyde require careful monitoring. The legal limits on emissions of and exposure to VOCs vary from place to place, and are set by authorities including the European Union and the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA. One common definition of a VOC, which has been adopted by the EU, World Health Organisation WHO, and others including Health Canada, is a carbon compound with a boiling point below 250C.