Updated: Aug 22
TVOC stands for total volatile organic compounds and it is the measure for the total amount of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the air. Individuals who are exposed to excessive amounts of TVOC may have detrimental effects on their health. Therefore it is important to understand when it is safe and when it is not.
Table of Contents:
What is a VOC?
A volatile organic compound (VOC) is a substance that has high vapor pressure but low water solubility. They're similar to gases and often described as such but the main difference is that they are emitted from a solid or liquid substance. What that means is you have either a liquid compound or solid compound that emits gases.
Gases on the other hand are in gas form and just get emitted as is. This is different from a VOC, where the emitted gases come from a non-gas form but rather from a liquid or solid compound.
Basically, a VOC is a solid or liquid compound that can emit gases due to its volatile nature.
Where are VOCs found?
VOCs are found in a lot of everyday products because they don't come in gas tanks. They are packaged in ordinary bottles, cans, and packaging.
Paint strippers and thinners
Building materials and furnishings,
Office quipment - copiers and printers, correction fluids, carbonless copy paper
Glues and adhesives
Nail polish and nail polish removers
Fuel and oil
How to tell if your product is a VOC
The list above includes a LOT of products and most of them are used on a daily basis. It is actually quite easy to determine if the product that you are holding is a VOC or not.
Open the package of substance.
If you got a waft or smell that suddenly burst into the air as soon as you opened the packaging, then you have a VOC. If it was scentless then it was not a VOC. That is basically how you dtermine whether or not it was a VOC and also describes in simple terms what it is.
VOCs do emit gases and and as soon as people hear the word gas, they get paranoid but a VOC is different in that they are present in everyday household products. It is a gas but also different at the same time. Nevertheless, they do contaminate air quality so you should at least exercise caution.
Health effects from exposure to excessive VOCs
It is not recommended to be permanently exposed to excessive levels of VOCs because they do cause detrimental health effects by contaminating air quality. It is recommended to minimize exposure whenever possible. If you do not need to be present when a VOC is being used, you should distance yourself.
Here are some possible side effects from VOC exposure:
Eye, nose and throat irritation
Headaches, loss of coordination and 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.
nose and throat discomfort
allergic skin reaction
declines in serum cholinesterase levels
What levels of TVOC are safe?
VOCs can be measured individually but tests usually measure every possible VOC and give you the total amount of it, which is expressed as TVOC. The TVOC level is the sum of all VOC levels which affect the quality of your air.
Here is a common chart of TVOC levels expressed as milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) and also micrograms per cube meter (ug/m3):
TVOC level mg/m3
TVOC level ug/m3
Level of concern
< 0.3 mg/m3
0.3 - 0.5 mg/m3
300 - 500 ug/m3
0.5 - 1.0 mg/m3
500 - 1000 ug/m3
1 - 3 mg/m3
1000 - 3000 ug/m3
Basically, in order to be safe you want the TVOC to be below 0.3 mg/m3 or 300 ug/m3. However, it is still acceptable for the TVOC to be up to 0.5 mg/m3 or 500 ug/m3. All levels which are higher than that should raise suspicion.
Source for TVOC standards and safe levels
Since most websites did not have a source for where the levels of TVOC came from and what determined their safety, we had to go through many scientific studies to find the answer.
It turns out that the levels for TVOC were taken from the US Green Building Council, which grants LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for a green building.
On page 128:
Perform a screening test for Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC). Use ISO 16000-6, EPA TO-17, or EPA TO-15 to collect and analyze the air sample. Calculate the TVOC value per EN 16516:2017, CDPH Standard Method v1.2 2017 section 3.9.4, or alternative calculation method as long as full method description is included in test report. If the TVOC levels exceed 500 µg/m3, investigate for potential issues by comparing the individual VOC levels from the GC/MS results to associated cognizant authority healthbased limits. Correct any identified issues and re-test if necessary.
There you have it, the TVOC safe level of less than 500 ug/m3 or 0.5 mg/m3 was sourced by the LEED building certification. Isn't it fascinating that it is a building certification, which we use as a guideline for air quality and safety? What in the world is the EPA doing?
Does the EPA regulate TVOC levels?
Apparently the EPA (environmental protection agency) does NOT regulate TVOC nor VOC levels. In fact, according to the Minnesota Health Department, there are no federal nor state TVOC standards in non-industrial settings. Therefore home-testing for VOCs isn't even a recommendation.
All they stated on their website was:
If you are concerned about VOCs, it is best to try and reduce or eliminate the products that bring VOCs into your home.
There is no mention of TVOC levels and what is safe and what is dangerous. We tried to see if New York regulated TVOC and VOCs but it turned out to be the same. Apparently, there is no regulation for VOCs that are released into the air but they do seem to regulate the manufacture of VOCs. Basically, compounds will be approved or denied for production but after it is approved, it can be used however you want.
How to interpret a TVOC lab report
You can hire an environmental agency to come do an air quality test for TVOCs. After a few weeks, they will generate a lab report for you which shows all VOCs that are present and their respective levels. At the bottom it will give you the TVOC, which is the total sum of all of the volatile organic compounds.
Here is a sample lab report:
All detected VOCs will be listed with their respective levels.
The values may be expressed as either ug/m3 or mg/m3.
They can also be expressed as ppm (parts per million) or ppbv (parts per billion).
The total VOC will be listed at the bottom of the report.
Due to no federal nor state regulations for volatile organic compound levels, the results are subject to interpretation. The LEED guideline recommends for buildings to be below 500 ug/m3 or 0.5 mg/m3 but sometimes your report may exceed that. Does it mean that it is harmful? Not necessarily.
The sample report reports 900 ug/m3, which exceeds the recommendation however, ethanol and isopropyl alcohol account for 800 ug/m3 of the total. Those two compounds are from rubbing alcohol. Therefore even though the TVOC exceeded the limit, it doesn't necessarily mean it is unsafe. In fact, the LEED guideline says to compare the individual VOCs in order to determine safety.
How to determine individual VOC safety levels
The EPA may not have safety levels for VOC but OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) does! The OSHA website has every single VOC listed and their recommended exposure limit.
Go to the OSHA website.
CTRL + F
Type in the volatile compound of interest
The OSHA website uses mg/m3 and ppm as their units of measurement. If your VOC is below their regulatory limit then you're most likely safe. Although you should still try your best to find ways to lower the VOCs in the air whenever possible.
The Verdict - So, what is a safe TVOC level?
As a general guideline, according to the US Green Building Council for LEED certification, a safe TVOC level is below 500 ug/m3 or 0.5 mg/3; If you are below that level then you have nothing to worry about.
However if the value exceeds that level then you should look further into each individual VOC to determine if they exceed regulatory limits. There is no federal nor state regulation concerning the level of VOC nor TVOC that you should be exposed to.
Nonetheless, OSHA apparently does have recommendations for how much you should be exposed to. You should check each individual VOC on their website to see if it is safe for you to be exposed to that amount.
If you wanted more information regarding volatile organic compounds, the New Jersey department of health does have hazardous fact sheets for each VOC.
Here is how to find them from the NJ dept of health:
Go to www.google.com
Type in "NJ hazardous substance + (VOC)"
Hopefully you learned a lot and now know everything that there is to know about volatile organic compounds! You can better arm yourself and protect your family against air contaminants.
Author: Written by Dr David Chen, a long island city dentist.