Volatile organic compounds encompass a wide range of household and industrial compounds we’re exposed to nearly every day. When VOC levels rise, you may suffer respiratory irritation and other symptoms. But what about prolonged exposure or especially elevated levels of VOCs? Can they cause cancer?

What Are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds are gases released from household products and materials. In most cases, VOCs are caused by the chemicals used to manufacture furniture, wood, carpeting and upholstery. They’re also found in some household cleaning products. 

Some additional products that may emit VOCs include:

  • Caulks and sealants
  • Adhesives
  • Air fresheners
  • Cosmetics
  • Gasoline
  • Office printers
  • Smoke
  • Oil and gas extraction

Can VOCs Cause Cancer?

Several VOCs are known carcinogens and have been proven to cause cancer. While most VOCs are suspected carcinogens, more research is needed to confirm the causal effect. At least four VOCs are linked to cancer. 

Benzene – Linked to increased risk of leukemia

Formaldehyde – Linked to nose and throat cancer, and may also cause leukemia

Chloroform – Likely cause of bladder, intestine, liver and kidney cancer

Napthalene – Linked to throat cancer 

Additional Health Risks of VOCs

Cancer isn’t the only health risk associated with short-term or prolonged exposure to volatile organic compounds. Even limited exposures can trigger severe symptoms in some individuals, especially when it involves a highly toxic chemical. 

A few of the symptoms caused by VOCs include:

  • Headaches
  • Eyes, nose and throat irritation
  • Nosebleeds
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

High levels of VOCs can cause severe liver and kidney damage and may negatively impact the central nervous center. 

Will VOCs Make Me Sick?

The possible effects of VOCs differ by several factors, plus personal factors such as age, underlying health conditions and other variables. The most important variables that shape an individual’s reaction to VOC exposure depend on the amount of exposure, the duration of the exposure and how often the individual is exposed to VOCs at any dosage amount. For instance, using household cleaning products with VOCs on a daily basis could greatly increase the risk of developing health issues or cancer. 

Read more: Cancer Screening Effectiveness Study

How to Avoid VOCs

It’s important to note that most individuals do not handle VOC products or materials often enough or in high enough doses to face notable long-term health problems. Still,  Households should proactively reduce their risks, especially if any family members have asthma, allergies or other underlying health issues. 

  1. Look for products without VOCs. Opt for cleaning products, furniture and other items that expressly note no-or-low VOC. Manufacturers have slowly increased the number of low-VOC products; always check the label. 
  2. Story risky products outside. When possible store high-risk VOCs outdoors or in a garage to lower the risk of leaks. 
  3. Only open and use a VOC product outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. Keep doors and windows open if you must use VOCs inside. 

Remember that other airborne irritants, including second-hand smoke or wildfire smoke, may also contain VOCs. If you’re exposed to smoke indoors or in a fire area, consider using a dedicated air purifier. 

Take a Deep Breath with Less Cancer

Indoor air quality in general and VOCs in particular are a growing health problem. If you believe you may be at risk, talk to a healthcare provider for additional ways to protect yourself and your family. Physicians may recommend mitigating processes or products that can lower your risk and protect your health. Stay involved and support Less Cancer today.