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Healthy Minds Healthy College

Watching Paint Dry … What Actually Happening?

April 8, 2014

Indoor air, VOCs and our Health voc-sensory-2

Welcome back.  Our first post in this series about VOCs provided a glance at what VOCs are and where they come from. (VOCs are organic compounds / chemicals that easily become vapors or gases.) This second post will relate VOCs to our health.

VOCs in the outdoor air influence our quality of life (e.g., smog affects our breathing and exercise tolerance) and also negatively impact plant growth, including crops.   Though related;  indoor and outdoor VOCs are usually discussed separately.  This series focuses on indoor VOCs.  Indoor VOC concentrations are much greater than outdoor concentrations and in some cases, they behave differently (chemically).  Concentrations are estimated, on average, to be two to five times outdoor concentrations; but up to 1000 times outdoor concentrations when something such as painting or stripping paint is occurring. (Have no fear. Again, healthier home solutions will be the subject of future posts.)

Some VOCs change our cells! (…Can that be healthy?)     conjunctivitisThe Environmental Protection Agency1 (EPA)  says indoor VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central leukemiadnervous system. Some … can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer such as leukemia, in humans. Other signs or symptoms include allergic skin reaction, difficulty breathing, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, fatigue and dizziness. Formaldehyde and volatile dyspnea childorganic compounds (VOCs) are risk factors for asthma and wheezing.  We also know children are more likely than adults to experience toxicities. The Children’s Environmental Health Centre at Mount Sinai (Toronto) has produced a fact sheet about VOCs.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities

Processes involved in the development of sensitivities are not understood; but there is increasing agreement that some people become dyspnea‘sensitized’ to some chemicals including some VOCs. These changes in our bodies can involve the immune system and once they occur; future exposures to the particular chemicals will trigger allergic or sensitivity reactions.  It is important therefore to reduce exposures to VOCs both to prevent illness but also to reduce symptoms for those where illness has developed.

For more information on “Multiple Chemical Sensitivities”;  Oregon Public Health, the government of Australia and the government of
Massachusetts provide excellent fact sheets.


Wow… VOCs can cause people to feel acute symptoms like headache and can also cause cell or organ damage that might even – in time – cause cancer! That paint I stored has got to go…but what should I do with it? I’ll find out and let you know in the next post.

This second post in our series about VOCs in the home has pointed to the kinds of health effects people face as a consequence of VOC exposure. Our next post will give practical suggestions on reducing VOC exposure at home.


  1. The Environmental Protection Agency1 (EPA)  

From Health Services