Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Detecting and Monitoring

VOCs are volatile chemical compounds. They are defined as so because they easily evaporate and release molecules into the atmosphere. By using gas detection equipment, exposure to VOCs can be monitored.

ION Science produces gas detection equipment for monitoring exposure to toxic levels of VOCs.

What is a Volatile Organic Compound?

The low boiling points of VOCs mean that, as a substance, they easily evaporate from solids or liquids used in industrial processes, for example, benzene from fuel or formaldehyde evaporating from paint.1

Health and Safety Issues

At room temperature, VOCs exist as a gas, and the main route of exposure is through normal respiration. Exposure to harmful VOCs can occur at home, in the workplace or outdoors.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Detecting and Monitoring

Image Credit: Ion Science

Air Pollution

Air pollution is now undoubtedly in the public eye and is typically included alongside UV levels on weather forecasts. VOCs themselves are a direct air pollutant, but they also carry secondary effects.

When heat and sunlight react with VOCs, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (gasses released from many industrial processes and vehicles), ozone is produced, and smog is generated.

Each individual component of smog can have a detrimental effect on human health and harm the environment but combined they form a deadly cocktail.

Smog can cause or intensify health problems such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory problems. The ozone in the smog also constrains plant growth and can lead to widespread damage of crops and forests.

As such, potentially hazardous volatile organic compounds, including benzene, toluene, ethylene, xylene and formaldehyde, require careful monitoring. 

“The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed.”2 

Clean Air Strategy 2019

In January 2019, the UK government launched a Clean Air Strategy that detailed how to address the health and safety and environmental issues surrounding air pollution.

The strategy included how they will tackle all sources of air pollution, making the air healthier to breathe while protecting nature and boosting the economy.

The strategy sets out how the government will;

  • Monitor the progress
  • Reduce emissions from transport, homes, farming and industry
  • Secure clean growth and innovation
  • Protect the environment
  • Protect the nation’s health 

Global Guidelines 

The legal limits on emissions of and exposure to VOCs are different depending on the location and region. They are determined by international and national authorities, such as the European Union and the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA. 

In the UK, there are no current guidelines for indoor air quality regarding individual volatile organic compounds. In their place, the recently revised Department for Education Guidance BB101: Ventilation, thermal comfort and indoor air quality (DfE, 2018) advocated for the use of the WHO (2010) Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) guidelines. 

Fixed, Portable and Personal VOC Detection

There are a number of tools and devices available for the detection of VOCs.

A frequently used, proven method that swiftly detects various VOCs over the concentrations of interest is photoionization detection (PID). PIDs come in a range of forms, including PID sensors, as well as fixed, portable and personal PID instruments.

Factories and other places where VOCs are normally present will monitor their internal atmosphere and surroundings utilizing Fixed VOC detectors. These instruments are installed permanently and offer non-stop measurement of volatile organic compounds in the air they sample.

A Portable VOC detector, which is a lightweight instrument, can be used in combination with a fixed VOC detector to give spot measurements. Compact, lightweight VOC detectors can be attached to personal protective equipment that is issued to workers.

They are primarily used for finding and measuring VOCs in any place where they could be present, either indoors or outdoors, which could be in connection with a spill, machinery breakdown or other unexpected events.

The portable VOC detector is suitable for inspecting confined spaces, such as inside pipework and sewers, in decontamination monitoring and in industrial safety and hygiene.

A Personal gas detector and monitor enables workers to operate in the harshest industrial environments, including confined spaces and hazardous areas, with personal protection detecting and alerting the user to hazardous levels of gases. 


  1. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/control-and-monitor-emissions-for-your-environmental-permit#volatile-organic-compounds-vocs
  2.  United States Environmental Protection Agency

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Ion Science.

For more information on this source, please visit Ion Science.


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