Inhalation of VOCs: Primary Concern with Cleaning Products

The cleaning industry continues to make tremendous strides in creating effective cleaning products and processes for a wide variety of applications, while protecting public health and the environment. Even so, the risks to health from exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from cleaning products and application processes remain of particular concern. Typical VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation; cough; headache; general flu-like illnesses; skin irritation; and may trigger allergy and asthma attacks. Long-term exposure to certain VOCs can lead to more serious health impacts. Others produce odors that may be objectionable. Children in schools and homes are at special risk for health problems from inhaling VOCs, because they breathe in more air with respect to their body mass than adults and thus receive greater exposure to indoor environmental pollutants.

Air Quality Sciences, Inc. (AQS) has tested the indoor air in more than a thousand offices, schools and homes. In addition more than 500 tests kits have been used by school systems to evaluate the presence of VOCs and to identify odors and sources of complaints. The results of these studies confirmed the potential for high levels of VOCs following cleaning and identified numerous VOCs associated with cleaning products and processes. The following table lists some common VOCs found in these indoor environments, along with the types of cleaning products in which they may be found.







Spot removers


Aerosol cleaners





Acetic acid esters

Surface cleaners


Surface cleaners


Surface cleaners


Surface cleaners

Butyl acetate

Surface cleaners

Methyl methacrylate

Hard surface cleaners

C6 – C10 substituted alkanes

All cleaners/polishers


Disinfectants/moth repellants





Dipropylene glycol

Surface cleaners












Aerosol cleaners


Spot cleaners


VOCs generally occur in complex mixtures in the air following cleaning, and the impact of these mixtures on human health is not yet completely understood. There may be synergistic or additive effects. Consequently, minimizing the total amount of VOCs in the air (TVOC) is recommended. Some case studies have shown that the TVOC level in schools may range from 40 µg/m³ to 18,000 µg/m³ within two hours of certain cleaning processes, reaching levels far exceeding the 500 µg/m³ considered acceptable by certain green building rating systems and product certification programs.

Complicating matters is the potential for interactions of VOCs with other chemical compounds to form a third compound that also may be a threat. As a result, even though the concentrations of individual VOCs may be well below odor thresholds or known toxic levels, their occurrence in complex mixtures may still lead to perceived poor indoor air quality (IAQ) or skin, eye and respiratory irritation for the occupants exposed. These complex interactions and reactions among indoor air components are occurring constantly, making it difficult for purchasers, users of cleaning products and product manufacturers to manage IAQ. To address this concern, product manufacturers have come to rely on the criteria from the GREENGUARD Certification programs in evaluating their products for VOC emissions. GREENGUARD Certification for cleaners has both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) criteria that products must meet. These criteria are based on existing health-based acceptance levels. In fact, the newly revised Green Seal Standard GS-37 for institutional cleaners includes the GREENGUARD Children and Schools Certification for inhalation criteria and dynamic chamber test method as one of two options for assuring low VOC emissions.

AQS recently introduced new, large environmental chambers that can be customized to approximate any room in a home, such as a kitchen, bath, living room/den, home office or bedroom with appropriate fixtures and furnishings, while maintaining the scientific rigor of environmental control for chemical and micro-biological studies. By simulating real-world conditions in a Consumer Chamber, the results of evaluating the IAQ performance of cleaning products and processes has more relevance and the opportunity for greater consumer confidence.

One of these chambers features a robotic arm used to dispense aerosols and liquids, thus eliminating unintentional human influence. The arm can be programmed to dispense products at specified times, in different amounts and in different locations, which allows for useful comparisons. Testing protocols permit real-time measurements of indoor air contaminants that might be released during a product’s use, including VOCs. In addition, the air system can be augmented to distribute controlled levels of respirable dust and allergens into the chamber, so efficacy testing of cleaning products can also be performed.

As an added value, AQS goes one step further than just providing data. The firm’s experienced technical team also offers guidance to help manufacturers revise product formulations to minimize hazardous emissions and to maximize their product’s effectiveness.

For more information, please see the AQS white paper, Cleaning Chemicals and Their Impact on Indoor Environments and Health, which is available free from Aerias, the AQS Indoor Air Quality Resource Center. Aerias can be accessed from the AQS web site or at, (Premium Content tab). Also, visit us at to learn more about how environmental chamber testing might help you, or call us at (770) 933-0638 and ask for Product Evaluations to order the analysis. For a listing of products that are certified to emit low levels of VOCs, visit the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute site at

© 2009 Air Quality Sciences, Inc.


Product Evaluations Technology Brief by Air Quality Sciences, Inc., Volume 9, Issue 3


(The above material is provided for general informational purposes only. The mention of another party or its product or service on the site should not be construed as an endorsement of that party or its product or service.)

Founded in 1989 by Dr. Marilyn Black, Air Quality Sciences, Inc. (AQS) has grown to become a highly respected name in indoor air quality testing and consulting.