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Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs)

Christine Johnson

Total Volatile Organic Compounds, or TVOCs, is a term used to describe a group of compounds that are present in emissions or ambient air. The chemical properties of TVOCs vary widely. They’re essentially a complex mixture of potentially hundreds of low level volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They impact the air quality of places such as hospitals, office buildings, and schools.

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Sources of TVOCs

Emissions of TVOCs stem from many sources. Examples of these include building materials, maintenance equipment, and custodial products. Generally, TVOCs are diluted by ventilation systems and have little to no smell. However, many have a detectable odor at their source. Formaldehyde is one of the most common VOC, a colorless gas with a sharp smell. It's common in building materials like plywood, particle boards, and glue.

Other common sources of TVOCs include:

  • Consumer products – This is a big one. Emissions of TVOCs come from a wide range of products and household goods.
  • Transportation sources – Vehicle exhausts and fuel tanks produce TVOCs.
  • Natural sources – TVOCs occur naturally in a wide range of processes.

Sources of indoor TVOCs can include:

  • Paints
  • Fabrics
  • Glues
  • Varnishes
  • Disinfectants
  • Smoke
  • Floor wax
  • Soaps

Health Effects of TVOCs

TVOCs are dangerous and inhaling them can be harmful to your health. The effects of TVOCs will depend on their chemical makeup, the amount of exposure, and the surrounding ventilation.

General effects can include:

  • Irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Loss of coordination, headaches, and nausea
  • Internal damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system

Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals, and some are known to cause cancer in humans. A buildup of TVOCs in indoor environments has been associated with 'sick building syndrome'.

Protecting Your Air From TVOCs

The best way to protect your air from TVOCs is to avoid chemicals and increase ventilation whenever possible. Examples of preventative measures include:

  • Opting for products that use natural fibers (such as shower curtains and bed linens)
  • Storing potent products (cleaners, solvents, paints, etc.) in areas with good ventilation
  • Reducing the use of scented products (such as candles, aerosols, and deodorizers)
  • Choosing glass containers (rather than plastic) for storing food

Learn more about VOCs and other common indoor air pollutants in our free 5-part email series, An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality:

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