Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)Go to:

What are VOCs?subir

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are hydrocarbons that become volatile (gas form) at room temperature.

VOCs are also part of different tropospheric and stratospheric reactions which contributes to photochemical smog -when reacting with nitrogen oxides to form ozone (O3) at tropospheric and ground levels- and greenhouse effect at stratospheric level.

VOCs are liberated during fuel combustion processes (transport is one of the main emitters of VOC) and also result from the burning of wood, carbon, natural gas, solvents, paints, adhesives, plastic compounds and additives in industrial processes.

Ozone is a strong oxidising agent and a greenhouse gas. In Europe it is currently one of the air pollutants posing greatest threats to human health and vegetation. In fact, air pollution"s most important effects on European ecosystems are eutrophication, acidification and vegetation damage resulting from exposure to O3.

The presence of high concentrations of ozone in the air we breathe is very dangerous and can damage both the environment as it is corrosive and human health, as it irritates eyes and the respiratory tract, causes fatigue, headache, allergies, decreased lung function, injuries to the liver, kidneys, lungs and central nervous system and increase cancer rates.

Effects of VOCs on human health may vary depending on the compound from high level of toxicity to absence of any known effects. They also depend on the nature of each compound and the period of exposure.

Long term exposure to volatile organic compounds may cause lesions to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

Short term exposure may cause conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnoea, nausea, emesis, epitasis, fatigue, dizziness.

Environmental effects include alterations of photosynthetic functions in plants.
Highly toxic VOCs include benzene, styrene oxide, trichloroethylene (all carcinogens), or formaldehyde and styrene (endocrine disruptors).

Emissions at work places can be:

  1. Punctual emissions: they occur through specific, localized exits into the atmosphere like chimneys, smoke pipes, etc. They are easily controlled and measurable. They are considered fixed sources and include exits of industrial emissions into the atmosphere.

  2. Diffuse emissions: Diffuse emission refers to pollution infiltrating the atmosphere from a large non-point source, they are difficult to locate like gas and vapour emissions caused by leakage, escapes or handling of chemicals. These emissions usually propagate in indoor environments before being released into the atmosphere.

What to do?subir

Obtain information on the amount, type (fixed or diffused) and composition of VOC emissions generated by your company.

Ensure that the risk of exposure to VOCs is adequately included in the risk assessment.

Control and monitor the company’s compliance with legal requirements on VOCs (Directive 1999/13/EC and Directive 2010/75/EU from 7 January 2013):

  • Legal authorization in case of being affected by Directive 2010/75/UE on industrial emissions (Integrated Pollution Prevention Control), and using over 200 tones/year of solvents

  • Notifying the authorities on the existence of facilities before they become operational

  • Observing emission limit values for VOCs in legislation (Annex IIA of Directive 1999/13/EC) or establishing a system to reduce such emissions (Annex IIB of Directive 1999/13/EC and Directive 2010/75/EU).

  • In facilities that might release compounds classified as carcinogens, mutagens or toxic for reproduction (chemicals wit R phrases R40, R45, R46, R49, R60, R61or hazard statements H351, H350, H340, H350i, H360F, H360D) strict value limits must be enforced: 2 mg/Nm3 in the case of VOC emissions classified with R phrases R45, R46, R49, R60 or R61 - H350, H340, H350i, H360F or H360D; or 20 mg/Nm3 in the case of halogenated VOC emissions with R phrase R40 and hazard statement H351.

  • All facilities that use hazardous chemicals or compounds that include the above R or H phrases must replace them with less dangerous chemicals if alternatives exist or substitution is technically feasible.

  • Precautionary measures must be taken to minimize emissions during the start up and shutting down of facilities.

  • Facilitate information on emissions and reduction systems: a yearly report must be submitted to the authorities on compliance with required limit values for emissions. The report can be included in the plans for the management of solvents.

Put forward the adoption of agreements and commitments with company managers to minimize VOC emissions through technological improvements, and the substitution of raw materials and hazardous chemicals.

Promote mobility plans to reduce the use of private motor vehicles by commuters.


The list includes chemicals classified as Volatile Organic Compounds by the Canadian Ministry of Environment.

Related legislation and policiessubir

  • Council Directive 1999/13/EC of 11 March 1999 on the limitation of emissions of volatile organic compounds due to the use of organic solvents in certain activities and installations. This Directive will by derogated by January 7, 2013.

  • Directive 2004/42/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 April 2004 on the limitation of emissions of volatile organic compounds due to the use of organic solvents in certain paints and varnishes and vehicle refinishing products and amending Directive 1999/13/EC.

  • Directive 2008/1/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 January 2008 concerning integrated pollution prevention and control. Derogated by Directive 2010/75/EU by 2 January, 2013.

  • Directive 2010/75/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 November 2010 on industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control). This Directive must be transposed before January 7, 2013.

  • Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2008 on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe. Includes measurement of volatile organic compounds (VOC) as ozone precursor substances (annex X).

  • Regulation (EC) No 166/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 January 2006 concerning the establishment of a European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register and amending Council Directives 91/689/EEC and 96/61/EC.


The list of VOCs was developed using following sources:

ListSourceDate of publication
VOCCanadian Ministry of EnvironmentOctober 2008

Last update

July 2012


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