Understanding V.O.C. and Toxicity

These are complicated and simple questions at the same time but the importance of each of these questions is immense. They are all linked together as you will soon see but I think we need to break it down to be able to start really understanding the effects it has on us and others.

1) What is a VOC.?

2) What are the different types of VOC.?

3) Are VOC’s dangerous?

4) Are all VOC’s hazardous air pollutants? Which are the ones to look out for?

5) What kinds of effects can they have on health and the environment?

6) Simple facts

7) What should Australia do to ensure their citizens health concerning VOC?

8) What have different countries done to study VOC?

  1. a) United States
  2. b) Canada
  3. c) France and 192 other countries
  4. d) Germany

9) PNZ in Germany and Whittle Waxes

10) Conclusion


1) What is a VOC?

Volatile organic compound,

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary, room-temperature conditions. Their high vapor pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the compound and enter the surrounding air. An example is formaldehyde, with a boiling point of –19 °C (–2 °F), slowly exiting paint and getting into the air.  


Understanding VOC and toxicity.

  VOC’s are numerous, varied, and ubiquitous. They include both man-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds.  Most scents or odors are of VOC’s. VOC’s play an important role in communication between plants.   Some VOC’s are dangerous to human health or cause harm to the environment.

Anthropogenic VOC’s are regulated by law, especially indoors, where concentrations are the highest.

Harmful VOC’s are typically not acutely toxic, but instead have compounding long-term health effects.

Because the concentrations are usually low and the symptoms slow to develop, research into VOC’s and their effects is difficult.

Anthropogenic =Human impact on the environment


2) What are the different types of VOC’s?

Natural VOC’s: 

They are naturally a part of life on earth and have always been here.  The gaseous emissions, where these natural VOC’s come from , arise from vegetation, by deciduous trees ( isoprene’s) and conifer (terpene’s) or emanating  from the degradation of organic matter by bacteria, (for example in swamps but also in the stomachs of animals!).  The biodegradation produces in particular methane and carbon dioxide.

There are still other origins of VOC’s such as your own expiration (carbon dioxide) or a flowers perfume. Our planet has always adapted well to these natural VOC’s

Human-made or Anthropogenic V.O.C.

They are caused directly or indirectly as a result of human activity.

Every process which involves the manipulation and the production of hydrocarbons emit’s VOC’s.  For example oil refining, solvent release, painting and industrial combustion are some of the many anthropogenic processes that produce VOC’s

Simply put, natural VOC’s are critical to a balanced natural healthy environment. Without them the World as we know it would not exist.

Natural VOC’s enable us to smell the flowers and enjoy the aroma of a good coffee! 

The Industrial revolution and subsequent reliance on Coal and oil has unbalanced the system on a Global scale.

In addition we surround ourselves and living spaces in Toxic Anthropogenic VOC’s, which in many cases do not dissipate, react with other chemicals and effect our air quality in a negative way. This in turn has led to a drastic increase in respiratory illnesses such as Asthma.

Anthropogenic VOC’s are in the paint on the walls, in the Sofa, carpet and the exhaust fumes in the Garage, these are the VOC’s concern to our Health and the Health of our Children.


3) Are V.O.C dangerous? 

Well, yes they are. Both natural and Anthropogenic VOC‘s can be dangerous, and there are both natural and Anthropogenic VOC’s that are relatively safe.

Two relevant examples would be Iso-aliphates, an anthropogenic VOC, and Terpenes which are a natural VOC.  Studies show that the Terpenes have more of a toxic impact on the Human form than the man-made Iso-aliphates.

Interestingly the definition of a VOC. only deals with the compounds boiling point, and its Ozone forming characteristics. The definition is not specific toward degrees of Toxicity between the different types of VOC’s!

It’s therefore important not to generalize when discussing individual VOC’ types and their particular characteristics.

Here are a few sites to check out about health and VOC’s mind you all you have to do is Google  “health VOC study” and the topics are almost never ending.

Here are a few interesting ones about asthma. But don’t limit yourself to these there are plenty out there.


Studies on Asthma and VOC’s 

  • Allergy, Asthma, and Related Respiratory Symptoms

Indoor Air Quality, Scientific Findings Resource Bank



  • Volatile Organic Compounds May Worsen Allergies and Asthma.

Children who sleep in bedrooms containing fumes from water-based paints and solvents are two to four times more likely to suffer allergies or asthma, according to a new scientific study

Scientific American



  • Indoor and outdoor BTX levels in German cities. BTX (Benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, ortho-xylene, meta- and para-xylene)

US National Library of Medicine



  • Health Effects Notebook for Hazardous Air Pollutants

While all VOCs have the potential to be harmful, there are a few common VOCs that can be particularly dangerous, and are emitted from a number of products in our homes. These common VOCs are formaldehyde, benzene, and phenol, and are classified as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For a complete list of all 188 HAPs,

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency



4) Are all V.O.C. hazardous air pollutants? Which are the ones to look out for?

Actually the question shouldn’t be “are VOC’s hazardous”, but what sources of VOC’s are toxic and or a pollutant.

To attack all VOC’s isn’t the answer as we have already discussed in the first part of this. To remind you again natural VOC’s are a part of life we cannot control or eliminate them.

What we can and need to do is have the correct information about the ingredients on the labels of all products for the interior to give the consumer a chance to inform and protect themselves.


Here is a link from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a few things they have to say about toxic air pollutants.


What are toxic air pollutants?

Toxic air pollutants, also known as hazardous air pollutants, are those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects. EPA is working with state, local, and tribal governments to reduce air toxics releases of 187 pollutants to the environment. Examples of toxic air pollutants include benzene, which is found in gasoline; Perchloroethylene, which is emitted from some dry cleaning facilities; and methylene chloride, which is used as a solvent and paint stripper by a number of industries. Examples of other listed air toxics include dioxin, asbestos, toluene, and metals such as cadmium, mercury, chromium, and lead compounds. 

What are the health and environmental effects of toxic air pollutants?

People exposed to toxic air pollutants at sufficient concentrations and durations may have an increased chance of getting cancer or experiencing other serious health effects. These health effects can include damage to the immune system, as well as neurological, reproductive (e.g., reduced fertility), developmental, respiratory and other health problems. In addition to exposure from breathing air toxics, some toxic air pollutants such as mercury can deposit onto soils or surface waters, where they are taken up by plants and ingested by animals and are eventually magnified up through the food chain. Like humans, animals may experience health problems if exposed to sufficient quantities of air toxics over time. 

The original list of hazardous air pollutants as follows: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/188polls.html

Some of which are ingredients in many polyurethanes and water based products, and sometimes at levels as high as 80%


4) Are all V.O.C hazardous air pollutants? Which are the ones to look out for?

Minnesota Department of Health Fact Sheet



Some examples commonly found in our daily lives are

  •  Acetone
  •  Benzene
  •  Ethylene glycol
  •  Formaldehyde
  •  Methylene chloride
  •  Perchloroethylene
  •  Toluene
  •  Xylene
  •  1, 3-butadiene


These VOC’s are commonly released from


Building Materials

  • Carpets and adhesives
  • Composite wood products
  • Paints
  • Sealing caulks
  • Solvents
  • Upholstery fabrics
  • Varnishes
  • Vinyl Floors


Home and Personal Care Products

  • Air fresheners
  • Air cleaners that produce ozone
  • Cleaning and disinfecting chemicals
  • Cosmetics
  • Fuel oil, gasoline
  • Mothballs
  • Vehicle exhaust running a car in an attached garage


  • Cooking
  • Dry cleaning
  • Hobbies
  • Newspapers
  • Non-electric space heaters
  • Photocopiers
  • Smoking
  • Stored paints and chemicals
  • Wood burning stoves


In relation to coatings, they all contain VOC’s!

The type of VOC and the coatings drying characteristics are important in choosing a safer alternative.

The VOC content is measured by volume as either % content in the tin or Grams per liter.

This measurement is a requirement in relation to smog and environmental impact.

It does not take into account toxicity, or application rate.

For example, to illustrate how application rate affects VOC’s released,

Coating ‘A’ has a V.O.C. content of 400g/l and a coverage rate of 20sqm /L,

Coating ‘B’ has a V.O.C. content of 180g/l and a coverage rate of 8sqm/L

To cover 20sqm with 1 coat,

Coating ‘A’ will release 400g of VOCs into the environment,

Coating ‘B’ on the other hand will release 432g of VOCs into the environment.

Interestingly Coating ‘B’ is accepted as a “better “product as it has a lower VOC content, yet environmentally this is not the case,

Coating B is also not required to stipulate the type of chemical VOC’s contained in the product.


5) What kinds of effects can VOC’s have on health and the environment? 

There are numerous articles online, here’s one that’s easier to understand, borrowed from Wikipedia,


         Respiratory, allergic, or immune effects in infants or children are associated with man-made VOCs and other indoor or outdoor air pollutants. Some V.O.C.s, such as styrene and limonene, can react with nitrogen oxides or with ozone to produce new oxidation products and secondary aerosols, which can cause sensory irritation symptoms. Unspecified V.O.C.s are important in the creation of smog.

Health effects include:

      Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to V.O.C.s include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.

       The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effects. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.

Main article: Indoor air quality

      Since people today spend most of their time at home or in an office, long-term exposure to VOCs in the indoor environment can contribute to sick building syndrome. In offices, VOC’s results from new furnishings, wall coverings, and office equipment such as photocopy machines, which can off-gas VOC’s into the air. Good ventilation and air-conditioning systems are helpful at reducing VOC emissions in the indoor environment. Studies also show that relative leukemia and lymphoma can increase through prolonged exposure to VOC’s in the indoor environment.   

       There are two standardized methods for measuring VOC’s, one by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and another by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Each method uses a single component solvent; butanol and hexane cannot be sampled, however, on the same sample matrix using the NIOSH or OSHA method.

       The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found concentrations of VOCs in indoor air to be 2 to 5 times greater than in outdoor air and sometimes far greater. During certain activities indoor levels of VOCs may reach 1,000 times that of the outside air. Studies have shown that individual VOC emissions by themselves are not that high in an indoor environment, but the indoor total VOC (TVOC) concentrations can be up to five times higher than the VOC outdoor levels. New buildings especially, contribute to the highest level of VOC off-gassing in an indoor environment because of the abundant new materials generating VOC particles at the same time in such a short time period. In addition to new buildings, we also use many consumer products that emit VOC compounds, therefore the total concentration of VOC levels is much greater within the indoor environment.

6) Simple facts

  • On second thought, maybe selling it isn’t such a good idea. Typical household paint contains up to 10,000 chemicals, of which 300 are known toxins and 150 have been linked to cancer [source: Chadderdon, Grafman].


  • Some of the most harmful chemicals found in paint are volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s. These chemicals aren’t something you want to spray on your body or potentially even keep inside your house. VOC’s are unstable, carbon-containing compounds that readily vaporize into the air. When they enter the air, they react with other elements to produce ozone, which causes air pollution and a host of health issues including breathing problems, head- ache, burning, watery eyes and nausea. Some VOC’s also have been linked to cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage [source: Chadderdon]. 


  • As paint dries, these harmful VOC’s are released into the air at high levels. Indoor VOC levels are routinely 10 times higher than outdoor levels, and up to 1,000 times higher immediately after painting [source: Pennock].


  •   Although VOC levels are highest during and soon after painting, they continue seeping out for several years. In fact, only 50 percent of the VOC’s may be released in the first year [source: Green Seal “Proposed”].  


  • So perhaps it’s not so hard to believe that paint-related products are one of the worst environmental offenders. They’re the second largest source of VOC emissions into the atmosphere after automobiles, responsible for roughly 11 billion pounds every year [source: Pennock, Grafman] 
  • Painters regularly exposed to paint vapors have an increased incidence of several types of cancers, impaired brain function, renal dysfunction and other health problems [source: International Programme on Chemical Safety].   


7) What should Australia do to ensure their citizens health concerning VOC’s?

We are light years behind the other countries as we have seen earlier in this document. How can we catch up for lost time?

  • First of all it should and must be mandatory that all coating products for the interior and exterior should have to put their ingredients on the labels. The consumers have the right to know exactly what they are introducing to their homes, health and environment.
  • As we have seen in other countries we need to have some sort of system of certificates to inform the consumers about the environmental impact that the product they are buying has.
  • New regulations on VOC’s in products for the home need to be done fairly, given that it is hardly possible to reduce natural VOC emissions, it is necessary to address the limitation of the man-made VOC
  • Products that contain toxic elements that are detrimental to consumers health must be clearly marked on labels or even better taken off the market such as;

Acetone, Benzene, Ethylene glycol, Formaldehyde, Methylene chloride, Perchloroethylene, Toluene, Xylene, 1, 3- butadiene

8) What have different countries done to study V.O.C.?

  1. a) United States
  2. b) Canada
  3. c) France and 192 other countries
  4. d) Germany


  1. a) From the United States

New Asthma Study Links VOC’s and Allergens to an Increase in Childhood Asthma 



  1. b) Here is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 concerning V.O.C.



From the Canada health / Sante Canadien this one addresses issues with formaldehyde.


3.2 Gaseous Emissions

3.2.1 Wood products

Formaldehyde is released from pressed wood products made with urea-formaldehyde resins (e.g. particle board, hardwood plywood, medium-density fibreboard), and at lower levels from wood products with phenol-formaldehyde resins (e.g. softwood plywood, oriented strand board). Concerns about potential health impacts from these emissions led the wood products industry to adopt voluntary standards on formaldehyde emissions from particle board (ANSI 208.1) and medium-density fibre (MDF) board (ANSI 208.2) in the 1990s (Composite Panel Association 1999; 2002).

Kelly et al. (1999) assessed formaldehyde emissions from several wood products in a chamber over 24 hours. Emissions from coated urea-formaldehyde wood products (e.g. melamine, laminate) ranged from <2.7 to 55 μg/m2 h with the exception of one product emitting 460 μg/m2 h, and emissions from bare phenol-formaldehyde wood products ranged from 4.1 to 9.2 μg/m2 h. Among bare urea-formaldehyde wood products, emissions from plywood products ranged from 8.6 to 103 μg/m2 h, emissions from particle board products ranged from 104 to 1,580 μg/m2 h, and emissions from MDF products ranged from 210 to 364 μg/m2 h.

Brown (1999) assessed formaldehyde emissions from particle board panels and MDF panels in different small chambers and room chambers for several months, starting 7 days after manufacturing. Emissions factors from all the products tested were approximately 300 to 400 μg/m2 h in the first few weeks and 80 to 240 μg/m2 h after 6 to 10 months.

3.2.2 Varnishes, floor finishes, and paints

Varnishes are also known to emit formaldehyde. Three conversion varnishes tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still emitted detectable levels of formaldehyde more than 720 hours (one month) after application; and one of the three varnishes emitted 170 μg/m2 h formaldehyde 2,762 hours (about 115 days) after application (Howard et al. 1998). Formaldehyde was still emitted 3,300 hours (about 138 days) after varnish application and the cumulative formaldehyde emission to then was about 700% to 800% of the free formaldehyde amount present in the varnish at the time of application, indicating that formadehyde was formed during the curing process (McCrillis et al. 1999).

Two commercially applied floor finishes were tested by Kelly et al. (1999). In typical conditions, a base coat emitted 1,050,000 μg/m2 h formaldehyde immediately after application, and 10,800 μg/m2 h 24 hours later; a top coat emitted 421,000 μg/m2 h immediately after application and 4,660 μg/m2 h 24 hours later.

Water-based paints also emit formaldehyde. In a chamber study by Chang et al. (1999) of four interior water-based paints (water content 40.7%-55.4%) advertised as “low-VOC,” two of the paints tested emitted significant amounts of formaldehyde after application; formaldehyde emissions from one paint were still detectable 50 hours after application. Actual emission rates were not shown in the paper. Additional studies were conducted with the paint that had the highest formaldehyde emission (Chang et al. 2002). It was shown that formaldehyde emissions can be characterized by three stages: an initial “puff” of instant decay, a fast decay phase, and a slow decay phase lasting more than 300 hours post-application (emission levels and duration not specified in the paper). Elimination and replacement of the biocide (not specified) from the paint resulted in a 55% decrease in formaldehyde emissions.


  1. c) France and 192 other countries have signed this act.

The Grenelle debate on the environment, a decree making it compulsory for manufacturers to put on labels, the emissions of volatile pollutants from construction products, wall and floor coatings, paints and varnishes.  


The Grenelle de l’environnement is an open multi-party debate in France that brings together representatives of national and local government and organizations (industry, labor, professional associations, non-governmental organizations) on an equal footing, with goal of unifying a position on a specific theme. The aim of the “Grenelle Environment Round Table” (as it might be called in English), instigated by the former President of France, Sarkozy in the summer of 2007, is to define the key points of public policy on ecological and sustainable development issues over the following five-year period. 

This obligation comes into effect:   January 1st, 2012 for products launched on the market after this date · September 1st, 2013 for all the concerned products. The measures of emissions in the air interior concern:  · Organic compounds, Volatile organic compounds (V.O.C), and Total Volatile Organic Compounds (C.O.V.T.) 

10 substances under surveillance such as formaldehyde, toluene, acetaldehyde, xylem 

       These measures were realized 28 days after application according to the standards ISO 16000. The level of emission of the product is indicated by class of A + (very low (weak) broadcasts emissions in C (strong emissions) according to the same principle already used for the household electrical appliances or the vehicles. So the consumers can have transparent information on which can establish a new selection criterion. The building professionals for communities in particular, may also take into account the quality of indoor air as a criterion in their bids for the construction or renovation of buildings.         This measure joins within the framework of a policy to improvement of the air quality inside, involving actions of several types, among whom those consisting in reducing to the source of these emissions.

The quality of interior air? The internal Monitoring center of the air quality proceeds regularly to study present pollutants inside houses, offices, and nurseries and more generally in all public places. The reports from this monitoring center show that closed spaces in which we spend on average 22 hours a day present high quantities of chemical pollutants in the air.

If the sources of pollution are very varied, paints, glues, furniture and coverings are widely implicated in these reports on the risks and the dangers of a too much internal pollution. The results of the last study are extremely alarming from the point of view of the risks for public health. They demonstrate that it is essential to choose more respectful, ecological products of decoration and finish for our health and the environment, capable of substituting itself for conventional products largely responsible for these pollutions. 


  1. c) The Germans leading the way.

As we all are aware Germany is light years ahead in quality healthy products for the interior.

AgBB / DIBt – German restrictions for VOC emissions Germany published restrictions for VOC emissions from floor coverings, parquet coatings, adhesives and some more products. This is the first step in an attempt to limit the emissions of volatile organic chemicals  from any construction product. The AgBB test is similar to emission tests in other countries such as France and Finland, and to testing protocols for AFSSET, EMICODE, Blue Angel, GUT or Natureplus ecolabels.  

  Building products maybe a major source of indoor air pollution by volatile organic compounds (V.O.C) and semivoilitale organic compounds (S.V.O.C). To establish the fundamentals for a union and reproducible health-related evaluation of building products in Germany, the Committee for Health –related Evaluation of building products (Ausschuss zur ge- sundlheitlichen Bewertung vin Bauprodukten– AgBB) has developed criteria for testing and evaluation scheme for V.O.C. emissions from building products suitable for indoor usage. The evaluations scheme sets quality standards relevant to health for future production of building products for use indoors and fosters the development of particularly low- emission products. 

9) PNZ in Germany and Whittle Waxes 


     Protecting both the end user and the environment are as near to our heart as is maximum safety of use. Nature is our model. All PNZ products are manufactured with the least possible waste of resources from high-quality, renewable natural raw materials, such as beeswax, vegetable waxes and oils from monitored crops. None of our formulas use any carcinogenic or toxic VOC-containing solvents whatsoever.

Ecological development of PNZ Produkte GmbH 

1986 Complete abandonment of health-damaging aromatic solvents in all of our products, and conversion to DE aromatized hydrocarbons.

1990 Development of an ammonia free wax stain.

1992 Commissioning of the cooling water circuit for our melting pots, in order to conserve drinking water.

1993 Refurbishment of the heating plant with the most modern control equipment technology. Reduction of heating oil consumption by 20%.

Since 1994, continual development and release to market of solvent free products, such as: PNZ Wood Varnish PNZ Impregnating Primer W210PNZ Wood Wax WPNZ Repair Paste PNZ Wood Oil PNZ cleaning products PNZ care products PNZ garden timber care program1997 Decision in favor of participating in the European Community’s eco-audit.

1999 Development of ultra-high-solid products (solvent free)

2009 Certification according to ISO 9001 and 14001, fundamental business principles for quality management and environmental management.

2010 Certification of all floor oils as low-emissions products according to AgBB. Granting of the regulatory approval by the DIBt, with respect to construction supervision, for all floor oils.

2011 Development, regulatory approval, and establishment of a new V.O.C. free / low V.O.C. product group of floor oils in PNZ’s product line.

10) Conclusion

To recap, it’s not necessary to be alarmed by the Term V.O.C., rather educate yourself regarding the Toxic Air chemicals, many of which are categorized as VOC’s.

Often VOC’s are necessary in coatings for a number of reasons, it’s the type of VOC and application rates of the coating that are the true indication of the VOC’s released in the coatings use.

In addition how the coating performs over time is important, if the manufacturer has undertaken a 14 day emissions test, this shows that there is nothing to hide regarding the chemicals released over a period of time.

There are zero or low VOC’ coatings which are beautiful, however they tend to need ongoing upkeep or maintenance.

Use and support environmentally sound products from companies that are open with regards the information they make available about the products they sell. Either on information sheets and particularly if there is an ingredient list on the container.

Material Safety Data sheets are a hazard requirement in the event of an accident, and are not required to show all the ingredients.

Be aware of terms often used to disguise the actual nature of what you are getting, ‘water based’ is a prime example of something possibly not as kind to the environment as the term indicates.

Some coatings advertise the fact that they are non Toxic, this is a relevant term, you would not consider drinking or applying it to the skin, however there is no measurable toxicological effect on the Human form in the coatings use at application and by the end user on an on going basis. Again look into the coatings certification and ingredients for peace of mind.

Thanks to the tireless efforts and technological achievements towards healthier interiors made by countries like, Germany and many others, there are many products that offer excellent performance whilst meeting important environmental criteria. The path way is already clear about what we need to do.  Simply following their examples will make the challenge easier for Australians to catch up with other nations in this engagement towards a cleaner environment.

More and more people are becoming aware that there are alternatives to what is usually made available, these alternatives are often worth investigating for you and your family’s health and that of the environment, and after all it’s simply a matter of making an informed choice.


Whittle Waxes

Amy and Giles

The information provided in this Document is correct to the best of our knowledge, information and belief at the date of its publication. The contents of this email are the opinion of the writer’s only and are not endorsed by Whittle Waxes unless expressly stated.


Comparing Price, Coverage and VOCs of Austrailan Coatings