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Volatile Organic Compounds

Clipboard with volatile organic compound illustration

What are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a group of chemicals that easily evaporate into the air.

VOCs can be released from burning fossil fuels, like as gasoline, wood, and natural gas. VOCs are also found in some paints, glues, and cleaning products.

How can I be exposed to VOCs?

People can be exposed to VOCs from air, direct contact, and drinking water.


People who use products that contain VOCs can be exposed to them in air by breathing in the vapors. Additionally, people who work in places where VOCs are used can be exposed to them in air. People who live near places where VOCs are used may be exposed to VOCs that are released into the air or through vapor intrusion. Vapor intrusion is process in which VOCs move through soil and groundwater into buildings.

Direct contact

People who work in places where VOCs are used and people who use products that contain VOCs can be exposed to VOCs from direct contact through the skin.

Drinking water

People who live near places where VOCs are used can be exposed to VOCs from their water. People can also be exposed to VOCs if they live near places where VOCs were spilled or disposed of in the past. From water, people can be exposed to VOCs from drinking the water and eating foods made with the water. People can also be exposed to some VOCs when using the water to shower, bath, and run the dishwasher and washing machine.

How can VOCs affect my health?

Health effects depend on specific VOC, the way the exposure occurred, and the level of exposure. You can find more specific information on these common VOCs on their specific pages:

How can I protect myself from VOCs?

When using a product that contains VOCs:

  • Follow the directions on the product label.
  • Use the product in a well ventilated area - use a fan or have a window open.
  • If you can smell the chemical, stop what you are doing and move to a well-ventilated area.
  • Seek medical attention if you experience drowsiness, headache, nausea, eye or respiratory irritation, slowed reflexes during or after using a product with TCE.

If you work with in a place where VOCs are use:

  • Read and follow instructions provided by your employer.
  • Wear all required personal protective equipment (such as gloves, masks, coveralls, and respirators).
  • Shower or change clothes before leaving work to avoid bringing chemicals home with you. If this is not possible, change as soon as you get home and wash your work clothes separately from the rest of you and your family’s laundry.

While working with products that contain VOCs:

  • Follow the directions on the product label.
  • Wear gloves, eye protection, and long sleeves.
  • If you get the product on your skin, wash the area with plenty of soap and water. Seek medical attention if skin irritation or a rash occurs.
  • If you get the product in your eyes, rinse with water for several minutes. Remove contact lenses, if present and easy to do, and continue rinsing. Seek medical attention if eye irritation continues.

Public water users

Community water systems are required to test for VOCs on a regular basis. If the level of one or more VOCs are above Wisconsin's drinking water standard, your water system will issue a public notice. The public notice will include information on the level detected, the actions that the system is taking to address the problem, and any steps that you should take to reduce your TCE exposure.

Private well users

Test for VOCs using a Wisconsin certified lab if you live near a landfill, industrial site, gas station, or dry cleaner.

Take action to reduce your exposure if the level of any VOC is above an adopted or recommended groundwater standard, drinking water standard, or health advisory. You can learn more about specific thresholds and actions to take on the specific chemical page.

Who regulates VOCs in Wisconsin?

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulates how much some VOCs can be released into the air, surface water (lakes, rivers, and streams), and groundwater in Wisconsin.

DNR has set a residential indoor air action level for some VOCs.

DNR regulates how much of some VOCs can be in water served by public water systems and oversees the clean up of contaminated sites.

Related topics

Our groundwater standards page has information on how Wisconsin's groundwater standards are set, DHS' role in the process, and a summary of the current and recommended standards including VOCs.

The Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council's annual report summarizes the operations and activities occurring within the state to address groundwater issues including VOCs.

The DNR's Bureau of Remediation and Redevelopment Tracking System on the Web (BRRTs on the Web) provides information on contaminated properties and other cleanup and redevelopment activities in Wisconsin including VOC sites.

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Last revised January 23, 2024